A new safety
group based at NASA Langley Research Center said
Wednesday that the agency needs more frequent checks on
space shuttle hardware, improved instruments on Mars
landers and better protection against fuel leaks on a
NASA Engineering and Safety Center Director Ralph Roe
invited senior officials to agency headquarters in
Washington to announce the first findings from the
6-month-old safety center, which was established at
Langley in the wake of the Columbia disaster.
investigations did not uncover alarming safety threats.
NASA officials cautioned beforehand that the center's
would not be shocking, stressing that they
wanted to start with relatively simple issues. And the
new center doesn't fill all of the safety holes
highlighted by the Columbia Accident Investigation
But Roe said the findings show how concerns raised by
individual NASA employees can spur investigations that
uncover problems and recommend changes to prevent future
"I'm very happy to have gotten to this point," Roe said.
The safety center addressed concerns from both
high-ranking officials and relatively low-level
engineers. NASA officials say the agency is responding
to the Columbia board's recommendation to open channels
of communication. During the Columbia mission, safety
issues raised by several engineers, including a NASA
Langley researcher, never made it up the chain of
The safety center's first four findings concerned:
the grease used in the space shuttle's rudder and speed
aerodynamic analysis of the X-43a experimental aircraft.
landing trajectories of the Mars rovers, with
recommendations for future landers.
safety concerns about the spacecraft that will carry the
CALIPSO satellite into orbit next year.
The NASA Safety and Engineering Center has not been
immune to criticism.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report named
Roe as one of several NASA officials who made poor
decisions during the doomed shuttle mission that took
the lives of seven astronauts last year. His appointment
to an agency-wide safety position raised eyebrows inside
and outside the agency.
Roe said he wasn't thinking about Columbia at
Wednesday's meeting, which was attended by about 250
NASA officials. He said he was proud that NASA willingly
committed its best technical experts to the safety
"I'm just proud of my team," he said.
The safety center has a $45 million startup budget and a
staff of 60 full-time and about 150 on-call experts from
NASA, the military and academia. Seventeen full-time
employees are based at Langley. The others stay immersed
in research at a variety of NASA centers.
Feedback to the center is growing to a pace of about 200
requests per year, Roe said.
Through e-mail, phone calls and letters, the center has
received 49 queries dealing with safety and engineering
concerns within NASA. Roe said the safety center tracks
each query to completion, through either in-house
investigation or referral to another group within NASA.
"My first fear was that no one would call," Roe said.
"My second fear was that everyone would call." The
current pace is manageable, but Roe expects he'll need
more than $45 million next year to keep up with demand.
One NASA observer said he was impressed by Roe's work.
"This sounds like the NASA of the 1960s," said Howard
McCurdy, a public affairs professor at American
University who wrote a book about the inner workings of
the space agency. "Back then, the underlying cultural
philosophy was that you understood the system, you
proved it worked and then you flew. If you have a risk,
you understand the risk."
John Logsdon, a member of the Columbia accident board
and director of George Washington University's Space
Policy Institute, lauded the safety center for providing
additional technical support for NASA safety
organizations, but said another panel with more
authority still was needed.
The Columbia board wanted NASA to form an authority to
set and maintain technical standards and be the sole
organization that can grant waivers to those standards.
The safety center does not do that, Logsdon said.
"It can be a useful addition to NASA's management of
risky programs," Logsdon said, "But it does not have the
kind of power the board envisioned, to be able to stop
forward movement in an ongoing program when safety
issues require such a move."
NASA officials concede the safety center isn't enough
and are still working on forming an independent