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Washington File

16 May 2003

Byliner: NASA Committed to Flight Safety, Deputy Administrator Says

(Op-ed column in May 16 USA Today) (490)
(This column by Frederick D. Gregory, deputy administrator of the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was first published May
16 in USA Today. The column is in the public domain. No republication
(begin byliner)
NASA's Committed to Safety
By Frederick D. Gregory
I was part of the first space-shuttle-astronaut class and spent two
and a half years helping to prepare Columbia for its maiden voyage. I
would fly three shuttle missions, two as commander.
On Jan. 28, 1986, I was sitting in Mission Control at NASA's Johnson
Space Center in Houston as the lead CAPCOM -- the person in charge of
communicating with the astronauts -- when I saw the space shuttle
Challenger explode. Like all Americans, I was stunned and saddened.
I would become part of a NASA that recommitted itself to safe flight.
We would institute the recommendations of the Rogers Commission, the
presidential commission that investigated the loss of Challenger, and
then some.
Sadly, after 17 years of safe flight, we would see another brave crew
After the loss of Challenger, NASA began face-to-face flight-readiness
reviews that had one simple ground rule: Prove that the shuttle is
ready and safe to fly. From then on, if any shuttle-program official
had the slightest qualm about a safety or technical issue, we would
not launch. Last year, we prudently delayed five shuttle flights on
eight separate occasions because of safety concerns that ranged from
the discovery of tiny cracks in propellant fuel liners to poor weather
at an alternative landing site.
NASA also began putting astronauts such as Dick Truly, Bob Crippen,
Bill Readdy and me in senior management positions because of our
flight experience and breadth of knowledge -- but also because of the
depths to which we care about the safety of the shuttle crews. For us,
safety is not a concept. It's personal.
After Challenger, I initiated an independently run safety-reporting
system, which enables anyone at NASA to raise anonymously any safety
concerns directly with upper management.
We already have begun to make the shuttles safer by working on the two
initial recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board,
as well as on some issues that we've identified on our own. For
example, we are addressing the obvious problem of foam loss from the
external tank, regardless of whether it's found to be a factor in the
Columbia accident.
We repeatedly have said that we await the board's complete findings,
and we stand ready to learn from them.
But we also intend to do what the Columbia families have asked of us
-- and what the legacy of the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia crews
demand. We will find the problem, fix it and return to flying safely
once again.
(Frederick D. Gregory is deputy administrator of the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration.)
(end byliner)
(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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