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NASA Official Defends Shuttle Testing And Quality Control With AM-Shuttle Investigation Bjt

February 11, 1986

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Challenger’s solid fuel booster rockets, one of which is suspected of rupturing and causing the shuttle explosion, were properly inspected when assembled but were not tested at the launch pad, a top NASA official said Tuesday.

″Once it (the shuttle) moves to the pad, essentially it is considered a structurally stable vehicle,″ Tom Utsman, deputy director of Kennedy Space Center, told reporters at a briefing session.

″There is no final check as far as structural integrity at that point,″ he added.

Among the possible blast causes being examined is damage or improper handling of the rockets at the vehicle assembly building, while the shuttle was moved to the launch site on its mobile launcher platform, or at the the pad itself.

Launch pad 39B, where Challenger lifted off 73 seconds before it exploded Jan. 28 and killed its seven crew members, is new to the shuttle program and hadn’t been used for a launch since it was rebuilt from the days of the Apollo moon program. The previous 24 shuttle missions were launched from pad 39A, a few miles away.

Jesse Moore, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s associate administrator of manned space flight, told the presidential commission investigating the disaster that the launch pad was being closely investigated.

″We are clearly spending a lot of time relative to any differences the two pads might have had,″ he told the panel Tuesday.

Another reported area of concern is total vehicle weight: 4,529,122 pounds including the boosters and the full external fuel tank, the heaviest of any of the 25 shuttle missions.

The shuttle by itself was listed at 268,471 pounds, with 48,361 pounds of that made up by cargo, which included a 2 1/2 -ton satellite and the 16-ton rocket that was to have pushed it into a higher orbit after it was deployed from Challenger.

The NASA ship Independence on Tuesday temporarily suspended the underwater search for the right booster because rough seas and strong currents made the use of an unmanned submarine impossible. NASA said it would have to get a stronger robot sub to search the area about 13 miles offshore from the launch site.

Recovery of the empty booster casing is considered crucial to the investigation. Launch film shows a stream of fire and smoke shooting out from its side, and the prevailing opinion is that this led to the explosion of the liquid fuel in the external tank.

Two other NASA ships continued sonar mapping of the debris area, the space agency said, and the Navy’s salvage vessel Preserver conducted diving operations.

Utsman, who until August was director of shuttle management and operations, would not speculate on any possible causes of the accident. But he defended Kennedy Space Center’s procedures.

The system of assembling the solid fuel boosters at KSC have not changed since the first shuttle, Utsman said. ″We do verify all the critical steps in that process of stacking. We do look at it continually as part of an overall review.″

Asked about concerns over possible deterioration of the seals between booster segments, Utsman said he didn’t know of any changes that had been made in their treatment.

″We’ve always treated those seals with tender loving care ... We adhere to requirements of installation.″

Asked about a series of 1985 shuttle processing accidents attributed to sloppy management by NASA’s prime contractor, Lockheed Space Operations Co., Utsman said Lockheed officials had done ″an excellent job in improving their operation.″

He added that ″there’s always room for improvement.″

Utsman emphasized there had been no major changes in quality checks and inspections since the shuttle program began. Lockheed and NASA mutually agreed to cut down on some previously required verifications of technical work on non-flying components after the company won the $2 billion, 6-year shuttle processing contract in 1983, he said.

But, he added, ″the government role in quality and safety really didn’t change ... There has been no change in fundamental policy with regard to flight hardware since STS-1 (the first shuttle).″

Both the contractor and NASA inspectors verify all work connected with the shuttle itself because ″we have not found a better way than to go with the two sets of eyes verifying the work in those areas that are critical to the flight vehicle and for safety of flight,″ he said.

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