The report specified that a chunk of dislodged foam ultimately caused the orbiter’s destruction, and pinpointing problems within NASA that must be corrected before the next shuttle flies.
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said the agency has already begun work on the board’s preliminary findings and would fully comply with the slate of new recommendations.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), led by retired Navy Adm. Hal Gehman, said in its 248-page report that the space agency lacks a system of checks and balances and an independent safety program. The tone and culture of NASA depends on top management supporting lower-level workers when they point out problems, according to the report.
CAIB issued 29 recommendations in all, including preventing foam loss and improving orbiter imaging, and more longer-term, broader program fixes.
The report also suggests the development of an orbital space plane to eventually replace the shuttle system.
Gehman emphasized at a news conference following the release of the document that the board did not find the shuttle design inherently unsafe.
“If we thought the shuttle was unsafe, we would have said so,” he said.
The panel found that a piece of foam hitting Columbia’s left wing 81 seconds after takeoff on Jan. 16 led to hot gases penetrating the heat shield and caused the shuttle’s breakup in the skies above Texas 16 days later.
In a written statement released Tuesday, O’Keefe said the report will serve as “NASA’s blueprint,” helping the agency determine when it can resume manned flights.
“We have accepted the findings and will comply with the recommendations to the best of our ability,” he said.
NASA has established an Engineering Safety Center at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., to conduct broad engineering and safety program assessments, and an independent task force to oversee steps the agency takes as it returns to manned flight.
A shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS) had been scheduled for last March. NASA is now aiming to get the shuttle back in orbit next March or April. In the meantime, crews have continued to occupy the ISS through Russian rocket missions.
Columbia, carrying a seven-member crew, disintegrated the morning of Feb. 1 while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, scattering debris over Texas and Louisiana. Within hours of the crash, NASA activated the CAIB.
The ill-fated STS-107 flight was the shuttle program’s 113th mission and Columbia’s 28th trip into space out of a life expectancy of 100 flights.