Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal said Wednesday he felt
compelled to highlight these issues after they ended up being
buried, downplayed or dropped from the final report of the Columbia
Accident Investigation Board.
"I feel an obligation that if I know of something
that could cause the next accident that's waiting to happen and
I didn't bring it forward, that's when I wouldn't be able to look
myself in the mirror," Deal said in an interview with The
Deal stressed that his 10-page supplement, which will
appear in an upcoming volume of appendices, is not a dissenting
opinion. It started out as a minority opinion a week ago, he acknowledged,
but many of the 12 other board members jumped on board.
"We are all very proud of this report," he said
of the recommendations made public Tuesday. "We think it
does, in fact, what we wanted it to do.
"Some people think it ought to do more, some think
we're too blunt. But I think there's almost universal agreement
that our 207 days of work were good."
But given NASA's reputation for ignoring reports, Deal
said he was skeptical the space agency would fulfill all 29 recommendations
in the full report, let alone the ones referred to as observations.
Deal, for example, worries that NASA will give short shrift
to the report's 10th chapter, titled "Other Significant Observations."
The observations include corroding shuttle parts, brittle bolts
that support wing panels, failures in the system that releases
the shuttle from the pad at liftoff and weakened rings attaching
the fuel tank to the booster rockets.
None of these problems, but rather a piece of flyaway
fuel-tank insulating foam, caused the Columbia accident, which
killed all seven astronauts aboard.
The chapter also touches on crew escape and survival but
makes no recommendations. Instead, Deal urges NASA to come up
with ways to better protect the crew cabin in an emergency.
A small amount of additional insulation between the inner
walls of the cabin and its outer shell might provide the heat
protection needed for it to retain its structural integrity, Deal
"I believe in this one set of circumstances, more
insulation may have helped" the Columbia astronauts survive
the Feb. 1 breakup of their ship over Texas, he said.
Instead of observations, some of the items should have
been recommendations, he wrote, and one - the need for an independent
bottoms-up review of Kennedy Space Center's shuttle safety inspection
protocol - should be a recommendation carried out before the next
shuttle flight. As it is now, inspectors must justify to managers
why certain critical parts should have mandatory checks rather
than justify why they should not, he said.
Out of more than 230 interviews with space shuttle employees
conducted by the board, Deal said he conducted a third of them
and was disheartened to learn NASA's shuttle inspectors were forced
to buy their own tools and prevented from making spot checks.
The inspectors also were not inspecting some critical shuttle
parts, using hopelessly outdated equipment, and being trained
by the contractors they were supposed to monitor.
"I heard this first hand from all these different
levels, from the technician up through management and we cannot
ignore that," he said. "When they say this could be
the next accident waiting to happen, I just have the conviction
that this has to be a recommendation and brought a little bit
more out in the light instead of buried somewhere else" in
the formal report.
Deal said in the push to release the report by the end
of August after nearly seven months of investigation, "maybe
someone made a mistake or maybe someone made a conscious decision
they didn't tell me about. Some things were deleted or diluted
Retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., the board's chairman,
said Deal is the only member to present a supplemental report.
The Air Force brigadier general has taken part in about a dozen
investigations into military aircraft and rocket
"He did the industrial safety part and he has more
to report on than we put in the report," Gehman said. He
noted that the final report started off with 1,000 pages, was
edited down to 400 pages and ended up being 248 pages, and so
many things had to be deleted.
Also on Wednesday, NASA's boss promised to change the
tainted space agency culture that led to the destruction of Columbia
and the deaths of seven astronauts, assuring accident investigators
and the rest of the world: "We get it."
Administrator Sean O'Keefe also accepted responsibility
for the flight schedule pressure that the investigation board
said may well have prompted space shuttle managers to bypass safety
before - and especially during - Columbia's doomed flight.
O'Keefe said that "without reservation," NASA
will comply with all 29 of the investigation board's recommendations.
Fifteen, all technical in nature, must be implemented before space
shuttles fly again. O'Keefe declined to say when that might happen,
but did not rule out the space agency's launch target of next