Today's Papers

No Space Balls

Everybody leads with the surprisingly harsh report from the Columbia crash investigation panel. While the board, as everybody already knew, fingered falling foam as the ultimate cause of the accident, it warned against simply focusing on that and instead explained that the blame really lies with NASA’s “broken safety culture.” (Despite that, the Los Angeles Times focuses on the narrow cause, “FOAM WAS TO BLAME, SAYS SHUTTLE STUDY.”)

The report details how safety often took a back seat to cost and time considerations. Basically, it wasn’t considered cool to fret about safety. As the Washington Post notes, investigators asked engineers who had been concerned about the foam that fell off why they didn’t push managers on the issue during Columbia’s flight: The engineers “opined that by raising contrary points of view about Shuttle mission safety, they would be singled out for possible ridicule by their peers and managers.”

As everybody notes, the report concluded that NASA had essentially returned to the culture that had existed before the Challenger accident in 1986. As the panel put it, “Engineers had to produce evidence that the system was unsafe rather than prove that it was safe.” The report also points out that the shuttle program has been hampered by significant budget cuts.

The investigation board did call for continuing support of the shuttle program, saying it should get more money. As the New York Times emphasizes, many space experts say that’s a no-no. “The problem is, the program is worthless,” said one analyst. “It doesn’t involve anything worth dying for.”

The NYT, alone among the papers, fronts a report from the Congress Budget Office concluding that the budget situation is “deteriorating rapidly” and the deficit will be $480 billion next year. The congressional projection, which the NYT says is based on “fairly cautious assumptions,” anticipates a climbing deficit throughout the decade even if the economy picks up steam. As the Times notes, that contradicts the White House’s recent projections. The Post, which stuffs the deficit update on A2, puts it starkly, “If President Bush succeeds in making his tax cuts permanent, the government will run substantial budget deficits as far as the eye can see.” As the Post suggests, the cuts aren’t likely to go away.

In a Page One WP interview, Iraq boss Paul Bremer said it’s “almost impossible to exaggerate” the amount of cash it will take to reconstruct Iraq, putting it at “several tens of billions” of dollars. Bremer also mentioned that someone recently fired an anti-aircraft missile as a U.S. transport plane near Mosul. It missed.

The same Post article quotes the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid as saying that while the reconstruction effort is “essentially out of funds,” he’s not keen on authorizing more dough unless the White House details how it’s been spending the money. “They erode their support when they don’t have their act together or don’t level with us,” he told the Post.

As everybody briefly notes, a GI was killed yesterday in a bomb attack west of Baghdad.

The LAT and NYT front, and others stuff, word from U.N. inspectors that they’ve found traces of weapons-grade uranium at a supposedly civilian nuclear plant in Iran. Teheran said the stuff is just leftover from the last country that owned the equipment, perhaps China or Pakistan. The LAT, which has the most in-depth coverage, suggests the explanation is bogus.

Everybody mentions inside that Israeli helicopters firing at a car carrying Hamas militants killed one bystander and injured about 20. The militants escaped. As the LAT emphasizes, Israel also snatched two Palestinian militants from hospital beds in the West Bank who had been injured in a previous shootout. Israel said it’s keeping the men in custody at an Israeli hospital.

The WP mentions inside that classified spending in the defense budget is at $23 billion, the highest level since 1988 (taking into account inflation).

The NYT notes inside that the administration has cut off funding to a small but well-regarded international AIDS program after charging that it was involved with groups that supported forced abortions. While State Department officials “acknowledge that they have no evidence” that the group was involved in such practices, they point out that the group worked with a U.N. group, which also doesn’t support forced abortions, but did at one point work with the Chinese government, which does.

The Wall Street Journal and WP say that Oklahoma’s attorney general plans to file criminal charges against MCI, company founder Bernie Ebbers, and five former execs, all in connection with the company’s $11 billion accounting scandal. 

The LAT celebrates the 75th anniversary of one of TP’s favorite pieces of casual-wear: Speedos. The paper goes to the experts to ponder the tighty-trunks’ significance. “During the Renaissance,” begins one sociologist (really!), “a man was proud to wear a codpiece in public, which also equated to male economic success and individualism. Wearing a Speedo spells out the same thing today.” Whatever. As another fashion analyst—OK, a surfer—put it, “It’s too sissy, dude.”