3 February 2003
NASA Removed Advisers who Warned on Safety


NEW YORK (Reuters) - After an expert panel warned that its space shuttles were facing safety troubles if the agency's budget was not raised, NASA removed five of the panel's nine members and two consultants in what some of them said was a move to suppress their criticism, The New York Times reported on Monday.

The incident was recalled after the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas on Saturday, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Retired Adm. Bernard Kauderer, was so upset at the firings that he quit NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, a group of experts charged with monitoring safety at the space agency, the newspaper said.

NASA conceded the individuals were forced out, but told the Times it changed the charter of the group so that new members who were younger and more skilled could be added. "It had nothing to do with shooting the messenger," a NASA spokeswoman told the newspaper.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said he was surprised by the report and that each member of the panel head served out his full term.

"There's no abnormality I'm aware of, but I'll certainly look into it and see if we can satisfy ourselves that there's no other intrusion involved," he told CNN.

The panel's most recent report, which came out last March and included analyzes by the six departed members, warned that work on long-term shuttle safety "had deteriorated," the article said. Tight budgets, the panel report said, were forcing an emphasis on short-term planning and adding to a backlog of planned improvements.

"I have never been as worried for space shuttle safety as I am right now," Dr. Richard D. Blomberg, the panel's chairman, told Congress in April. "All of my instincts suggest that the current approach is planting the seeds for future danger," the Times reported.

His worry was "not for the present flight or the next or perhaps the one after that." He added, "One of the roots of my concern is that nobody will know for sure when the safety margin has been eroded too far," the newspaper said.

Members of Congress who heard testimony from the panel last spring told the Times that they would re-examine whether budget constraints had undermined safety, but several said they doubted it.

O'Keefe said Blomberg "was concerned about the future process at that time, of exactly what would be the upgrades as well as the safety modifications necessary. We took those ideas aboard."

President Bush will propose a nearly $470 million boost in NASA's budget for fiscal 2004, an administration official said on Sunday, promising investigators would look into whether past cutbacks played any part in the Columbia disaster.


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