Date: WED 12/03/86
Edition: 3 STAR
Challenger disaster compared to Bhopal , Chernobyl, TMI
By WILLIAM E. CLAYTON JR., Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher likened the space shuttle Challenger disaster to the nuclear plant breakdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and to the catastrophic chemical accident at Bhopal , calling them similar failures of management.
It was the bluntest assessment of the management of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that Fletcher has made publicly.
Fletcher opened a NASA-sponsored symposium on quality and productivity Tuesday, challenging the more than 1,000 industrial, academic and governmental participants to "work even harder to revitalize our organizations and our technological and industrial base."
The space agency's managers "are committed to work with our industry partners and supporters in a non-adversarial relationship," Fletcher said. "We will continue to examine our procedures and policies to foster improved efficiency, while maintaining adequate controls. For its part, industry must ensure that waste, fraud and mismanagement do not become factors in hindering that relationship."
To maintain the technological strength of the nation, Fletcher said, "the United States must continue to devote adequate resources and attention to our research and development efforts, both in government and industry."
Fletcher's harsh assessment of Challenger management came in discussing "another, most important productivity issue, and one that is not normally addressed. And that is the management of risk."
The Jan. 28 accident that destroyed the Challenger and killed its seven astronauts just beyond one minute into their flight "is not unlike the accidents at Three Mile Island, Bhopal and Chernobyl," Fletcher said.
The nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, Pa., failed in March 1979, leading dangerously near a meltdown of the fuel core in the worst nuclear power plant accident in the United States. Poisonous fumes escaped from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal , India, late in 1984, killing thousands. The Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, near Kiev, failed last April, releasing a mammoth cloud of radioactivity and fouling water supplies over a wide area of the Soviet Union.
"In all those cases, complex systems reacted abnormally and had to be properly managed," Fletcher said Tuesday.
"When they were not, the consequences were catastrophic."
Proper management of risks has to include everything from design to production to inspection, Fletcher said.
"In the final analysis, it requires us to address both the reliability of the machine and competence and judgment of experienced people."
Now, he said, "NASA is on the move again and is rededicated and motivated to getting the space program back on track."
He concluded, "The lesson of Challenger, of Chernobyl and of Three Mile Island is a hard one, and it is this: We are living in an age where the single biggest factor affecting productivity may be our ability to properly manage technical risks. And the organizations and nations that can best manage to control those risks are the ones that are going to win the productivity race."
Another speaker at the productivity symposium, presidential budget official Joseph Wright Jr., said when President Reagan submits his budget to Congress in the coming weeks, it will outline "a new way of life in Washington." The plan is a set of management improvement suggestions, to be overseen by the Office of Management and Budget, designed to improve the management of federal government in more than 100 ways, Wright said.
Proposals will range from inspection and audit improvements to data collection techniques to reductions in litigation, he said.
Wright, a deputy director of the president's budget office, called the plan "our drive to revitalize the federal government."