As Anniversary Approaches, Astronauts' Families Say NASA Still Fudging'

For NASA, January 27 to February 1 seem to be the most dangerous days of the year. Three fatal accidents, causing the death of 17 astronauts, including Ilan Ramon, occurred on those days.

On Jan. 27, 1967, three astronauts were killed after a fire broke out before the launching of Apollo 1. The space shuttle Challenger exploded seconds after being launched on Jan. 28, 1986, killing seven astronauts. And the space shuttle Columbia crashed on its return to earth on Feb. 1, 2003. Seven astronauts were killed, including Ramon, an Israel Air Force colonel.

Last Thursday, NASA marked the anniversary of the death of the 17 astronauts and two NASA men whose helicopter crashed while looking for fragments of Columbia. Tomorrow, the space agency will mark Columbia's crash.

"The seven astronauts are not with us because at the most important moment we failed," said NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

The criticism directed at NASA in Admiral Harold Gehman's report that examined the crash is still echoing in the corridors. Some of the astronauts' families refuse to forgive, claiming the agency's concealment and "fudging" practice vis-a-vis flight security has not been uprooted.

The technical reason for the shuttle's crash was the chunk of foam insulation that detached itself from the fuel tank 81 seconds after the launch and struck the left wing panel, puncturing it. The deadly breach allowed hot gases to rip the shuttle apart during its ill-fated return to Earth.

But the Gehman report makes it clear that Columbia's crash was not caused only by a technical failure but also, perhaps mainly, because of the way NASA manages its space program. The agency's ineffective leadership failed to keep its undertaking to do everything possible to ensure the crew's safety, the report stated. It listed a series of failures in NASA's handling of the shuttle's malfunction, its ignoring similar hitches for years and its general policy of cutting costs and keeping schedules at the expense of flight safety. The report warns of another accident unless the technical, organizational and policy flaws are corrected.

In recent months, NASA has been trying to persuade the American public that it has learned its lesson. Bill Readdy, NASA associate administrator for space flights, said "huge changes" have been made and that when the space shuttle Atlantis is launched it will be the safest space mission ever.

The families of the Columbia astronauts are not impressed. Jonathan Clark, the widower of astronaut Laurel Clark, told USA Today that he knows there is still resistance in NASA to the changes being made following the disaster.

Rona Ramon said in interviews that had Ilan heard of the shortcomings that were discovered after the crash, he would surely have expressed his disappointment.

Since the disaster, a special work team is supervising NASA's implementation of the committee's recommendations. The date for launching Atlantis to the international space station was postponed from Sept. 12 to Oct. 10, 2004, and will be put off again, unless NASA implements the required changes. A member of the team said, "NASA did not hasten to adopt some of the recommendations," adding he did not think the changes would be made in time for the scheduled launch.

President George W. Bush's space program has infused new energies into NASA's senior management. The agency's success of landing two space vehicles on Mars, especially in view of the European failure, inspired NASA with new life. The agency is encouraging workers to send signed e-mail messages to the managers, not to hide and not to be afraid of reporting malfunctions. They hope the change in policy and practice will help NASA overcome the crash trauma rapidly.