Status Report

NASA Watch Editor Keith Cowing on CNN: The Columbia Shuttle Tragedy: Analyzing the Report (Transcript)

By SpaceRef Editor
August 26, 2003
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CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Insufficient funding, tight schedules and poor leadership, all problems the Columbia investigative board set contributed to the shuttle disaster. The findings were part of a blunt and hard-hitting report released today.

Keith Cowing, the editor of and former NASA employee, joins us from Washington to discuss the findings. Thanks for joining us.


COSTELLO: What struck you most in this report?

COWING: Well, it’s interesting, because it’s very well written. It was a month late, but I think it was well worth the wait. And it is part of a diagnosis of a problem, but it also contains prescription for how to fix the problem.

COSTELLO: And what is the diagnosis, from your perspective?

COWING: Well, I think you had it pretty well up there. It’s a whole list of things: not enough funding, management that needs reforming, the inability to raise problems up the chain. And NASA’s administrator even admitted, quite frankly, that “we just missed this thing”. “We just plained missed it.” And for a system that’s flying a sophisticated space shuttle like this, you can’t just miss things.

COSTELLO: Yes, you’re not kidding. And although you say this report puts the blame on NASA, it’s a pretty broad brush, isn’t it? No individuals are named. Should they be?

COWING: Well, you know there’s this whole culture thing that comes up, and it’s — you know I used to work there, and to paraphrase somebody else’s line, “I know it when I see it.” The system itself, I think you can swap people around. And just the way the system is set up, you would expect something like this to happen.

And I think Admiral Gehman said that the next few flights, when the shuttle flies again, they’ll be very vigilant. But it’s just in human nature to sort of slack off after a while. And they’re looking for a way to keep NASA from slacking off.

COSTELLO: Yes, but will heads roll? Will someone pay the ultimate price in their job for this?

COWING: Well, some people have already been replaced. And, I mean, there are several people who technically still get a paycheck, but they no longer have their job. And this is something they spent their whole career going for.

So, are they unemployed? No. But is their career ended? Possibly.

But there’ll be more changes coming along. And if you read this report, there’s a lot of systemic changes across the agency, where a lot of people are going to be hired as well. So you’ll see a lot of new blood coming into the agency.

COSTELLO: Yes, but will that be enough for Congress to give NASA more funding?

COWING: No. I mean, NASA has to do some contrition here. I think NASA’s got to show that it can get its managerial problems under control, its budgetary problems under control. And that’s what the current administrator was brought in to do. And just as he was getting started he was given probably the worst possible thing to have to recover from. So “we’ll see”, I guess, is the answer.

COSTELLO: So your best guess as to when the next shuttle will take off?

COWING: About a year from now.

COSTELLO: So you think it will, huh?

COWING: I think it will, but it will take a little bit longer than I think people expect. And there’s a lot of hoops that NASA has to jump through. And the administrator said that every recommendation will be implemented. And that’s going to be a lot of work for the agency.

COSTELLO: Oh, yes. Thank you very much. Keith Cowing, the editor of and former employee of NASA joining us this afternoon.

SpaceRef staff editor.