Today's Papers

Thermal Wear?

Everybody leads with follow-up to the shuttle explosion and word from NASA that a few minutes before the Columbia broke up, sensors on the left wing detected some kind of temperature spike, perhaps indicating that heat-shielding tiles had fallen off or were damaged. The New York Times is the only paper with a banner headline; and in a second line on the banner, the Times announces, “NO DELAY ON IRAQ PLANS, BUSH AIDES SAY.” Powell will still give his presentation to the U.N. Security Council Wednesday.

A piece of insulation fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank during lift-off and hit the left wing, but NASA at the time concluded that it didn’t pose a risk. And even if it did, nothing could have been done to fix it anyway, as the Los Angeles Times emphasizes. While most of the papers only give a perfunctory nod to NASA’s argument that the insulation dropping wasn’t a problem, USA Today actually quotes some experts as agreeing with the agency’s assessment. “It would float to the ground,” said one professor. “It wouldn’t have enough momentum to damage the tiles.”

In a press conference yesterday, the shuttle program’s manager also said that at the end of the flight something was creating drag on the left wing. Apparently, that’s another bit of evidence suggesting that some of the heat-shielding tiles were missing or damaged.

The Washington Post and NYT both give front-page play to experts’ long-held concerns that NASA was shortchanging shuttle safety. The NYT has the more provocative piece, headlined “NASA DISMISSED ADVISERS WHO WARNED ABOUT SAFETY.” The article’s first paragraph explains that members of a NASA safety panel complain that they were tossed off their job “because the agency was trying to suppress their criticisms.” Be skeptical: The article never gets a straight quote out of the members saying that. NASA also explained that it had simply changed the charter for the panel, requiring that new members rotate onto the board.

The Post’s piecefocuses on budget woes at NASA and says that the panel has warned since 1999 that NASA, in order to save money, has skipped “dozens” of recommended safety fixes. 

As the Post’s Howard Kurtz mentions, these complaints aren’t new, but the press has largely ignored them. Last April, the safety panel’s chairman testified to Congress, “I have never been as concerned for space shuttle safety as I am right now.” Apparently, the WP, NYT, LAT, and USAT were all in Cancún on spring break during the testimony. None of them covered it, or, more importantly, followed up to see if the complaints were legit.

One of the few journalists who has been consistently critical of the shuttle program is former Washington Monthly editor Gregg Easterbrook. Before the Challenger explosion, he wrote about the spaceships’ safety problems; heck, he wrote about the problems before the shuttle ever flew. Easterbrook now argues (in Time) that the program has been a deeply flawed, pork-barrel effort since its inception and says we should just can it.

The White House told the papers that President Bush plans on asking for a $500 million increase for NASA next year, which would give the agency a total budget of $15.5 billion. The NYT says that the administration, which says it planned the increase before this past weekend, argued that part of the money will go toward a “life extension” program to upgrade the surviving shuttle fleet.

There are already three investigations into the accident: one led by a congressional committee, another, an internal NASA investigation, and then there will be an “independent” investigation, organized by NASA and with only government officials on it. It will be headed by retired Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., who oversaw the investigation into the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. A news piece in the LAT and an editorial in the NYT both suggest that the lack of civvies is a bad thing. “With civilians from outside the government, you have people who are not constrained by any influence,” said one of the (civilian) members of the panel that investigated the Challenger explosion. The NYT also calls for Bush to name an independent commission filled with outside experts. USAT mentions that the White House has suggested it’s not going to do that.

The NYT has an op-ed on the disaster from former astronaut Buzz Aldrin. So does the LAT.

Besides the NYT, none of the papers put Iraq above the fold. What’s the Times suggesting by giving a banner headline to the fact that post-Columbia, the administration hasn’t changed its timetable on Iraq?

The LAT suggests that Tony Blair and Bush have agreed on a plan to get U.N. support for Iraq: Blix and Co. will give two more reports, and then there will be some sort of U.N. resolution, and then it will all be over in six weeks—except for the war part. The paper’s Ron Brownstein isn’t convinced: “U.S. diplomats may yet join the British in pushing a second resolution in the UN Security Council authorizing an invasion against Iraq.  But President Bush could not have been much more contemptuous of the idea.”

A front-page LAT piece says that the FBI has been overplaying the significance of a technique that analyzes the chemical makeup of bullets and, purportedly, can divine whether slugs are from the same box of ammo. The paper says the FBI has used the shady method in “thousands of cases” over the past 30 years.

A Page One LAT story says that the Pentagon has launched a fast-track, billion dollar program to develop a computer (the Whopper Jr.?) that will help planners decide when nukes should be used to take out deep bunkers. This is the second scoop the LAT has had about the administration’s nascent plans for using nukes to take out bunkers. So far, the NYT and WP have turned up their noses and skipped any significant follow-up.