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Interview With Randy Avera

Aired September 5, 2003 - 20:47   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Seven months since the space shuttle Columbia disaster now, and this week's -- NASA's boss was on the Congressional carpet to answer some very pointed questions. On Monday, the space agency is expected to release its detailed plans for returning the remaining shuttle fleet to space.
I'm joined now by Randy Avera. He's a former NASA engineer, worked on the shuttle program and author of the book "The Truth About Challenger." He was with the agency at the time of the Challenger accident.

Randy, good to have you back with us, as always.

RANDY AVERA, FMR. NASA ENGINEER: Good to see you, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Some very pointed questions on Capitol Hill for Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator and lots of calls for direct accountability. Heads should roll, if you will. Is that -- you've been on the inside of these kinds of things when those same requests are made. What does that do for an agency like NASA when those kinds of calls are made?

AVERA: Well, over the past 10 to 15 years, NASA has lost a lot of talent. The downsizing of NASA, the streamlining of contractors -- there's a lot of talent that's not at the space centers. And the people that are in the program management levels now, the question is, if you just shuffle them around, put them in a different position, will they perform in the high standards that are required for safe flight? That's the fundamental question.

O'BRIEN: So should heads roll?

AVERA: Certainly the talent that needs to be in place should be placed in those positions. And if heads need to roll to accomplish that, then that's what you have to do. But it's a matter of leadership analyzing what needs to be done and quickly implementing that solution.

O'BRIEN: The essential message from NASA post release of this report, the Columbia accident investigation report, the Gayman (ph), Report, is we get it and we're going to adopt it lock, stock and barrel. There is really no other appropriate response, I suppose, at this juncture. How does that get translated into action with a huge agency like this? It's a difficult thing, isn't it?

AVERA: Well, change is always challenging. And that's what the entire agency and the contractors will go through, is a great deal of change. It's going take not only the administrator, but everyone in the chain of command to pull this off.

But when we talk about we get it we can't be talking about a specific month that we're going launch. We don't understand how you can come up with that launch if you're not driven by schedule and if you're putting in place a new safety program, that truly will result in we're going to fly when we're fit to fly, as the administrator said.

O'BRIEN: Which is what the administrator's been saying. But, of course, there was earlier reports of a March launch date. And, if in fact, they stick to a March launch date milestone, maybe they aren't getting it so much.

I mean, NASA said they got it after Challenger. Clearly they didn't.

AVERA: I don't think change will happen in the first hour since last Tuesday when the board released its report. It's going to take a period of time to really recognize the change and also to have at least a prototype of a new safety program put in place to support not only the day of launch, but the days leading up to that next launch to get this real new safety program, the TEA organization that we're hearing about, at least the prototype in place, and let it mature flight by flight.

O'BRIEN: All right. You've had a chance now really to digest that report. Last time we talked about it, it was still very fresh. As I look back on it, I see so many opportunities for that accident to have been prevented. So tragic, isn't it?

AVERA: It's very tragic. It's a national loss. It is a tragedy. It's not an accident, it's a tragedy. And when the emphasis seems to be on program management as opposed to inability to solve a technical problem, it becomes sort of a double tragedy. But a tragedy that we can recover from, but we're going have to have that system in place, which checks itself to be reliable, more reliable than humans are on a day-to-day basis.

O'BRIEN: If, God forbid, there is another accident, what happens to NASA?

AVERA: I think at that point NASA will have a credibility problem that would be insurmountable.

Remember that NASA is a research and development agency which has been pressured to become sort of like an airline operation. It's in conflict with its own charter. And if a loss of another space shuttle were to occur and the crew in the payload, I think the historians will record that history as a history in which it went down a path that had multiple opportunities to be different, to be better, and to have a different outcome but it's clearly the leadership that's going to right that history of the future.

O'BRIEN: Pivotal moment for NASA. Thank you very much, Randy Avera.

AVERA: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: Appreciate your time as always.


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