NASA, in my humble opinion, is one of the finer American institutions. Problems? Yes. Fixable? Yes. Heroic mission and people? Definitely.
The MSM are so predictable ... and boring ... and tiring. I suspect very few of them know anything worthwhile about our space program. I doubt they care.
NASA has some issues. Make no mistake about that. The Space Shuttle Program has some very big issues. How many people know that the shuttles are not, even yet, "fully operational" craft? And they are old and getting older.
For people who want to know more about the issues surrounding the space shuttles, I highly recommend the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report. It should be required reading for anyone commenting on NASA and the Space Shuttle Program, particularly.
The CAIB went further than most investigations:
In order to understand the findings and recommendations in this report, it is important to appreciate the way the Board looked at this accident. It is our view that complex systems almost always fail in complex ways, and we believe it would be wrong to reduce the complexities and weaknesses associated with these systems to some simple explanation. Too often, accident investigations blame a failure only on the last step in a complex process, when a more comprehensive understanding of that process could reveal that earlier steps might be equally or even more culpable. In this Board's opinion, unless the technical, organizational, and cultural recommendations made in this report are implemented, little will have been accomplished to lessen the chance that another accident will follow.
Below are some funding figures extracted from the report. They don't necessarily speak for themselves (you'll need to read the report for details), but they do give a snapshot of one of many factors affecting NASA and the Space Shuttle Program.
And below those, I've pasted the table of contents of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report to give you a better idea of what's in it. You can download it here.
(Click on photos to Enlarge)
Changes in federal spending
NASA Budget as percentage of federal budget
WHAT THE EXPERTS HAVE SAID
Warnings of a Shuttle Accident
"Shuttle reliability is uncertain, but has been estimated to range between 97 and 99 percent. If the Shuttle reliability is 98 percent, there would be a 50-50 chance of losing an Orbiter within 34 flights ... The probability of maintaining at least three Orbiters in the Shuttle fleet declines to less than 50 percent after flight 113."
- The Office of Technology Assessment, 1989
"And although it is a subject that meets with reluctance to open discussion, and has therefore too often been relegated to silence, the statistical evidence indicates that we are likely to lose another Space Shuttle in the next several years ... probably before the planned Space Station is completely established on orbit. This would seem to be the weak link of the civil space program -- unpleasant to recognize, involving all the uncertainties of statistics, and difficult to resolve."
-The Augustine Committee, 1990
Shuttle as Developmental Vehicle
"Shuttle is also a complex system that has yet to demonstrate an ability to adhere to a fixed schedule."
- The Augustine Committee, 1990
NASA Human Space Flight Culture
"NASA has not been sufficiently responsive to valid criticism and the need for change."
- The Augustine Committee, 1990
Space Shuttle Program Budget
Space Shuttle Program Workforce
Columbia Accident Investigation Board
PART ONE: THE ACCIDENT
Chapter 1: The Evolution of the Space Shuttle Program
1.1 Genesis of the Space Transportation System
1.2 Merging Conflicting Interests
1.3 Shuttle Development, Testing, and Qualification
1.4 The Shuttle Becomes "Operational"
1.5 The Challenger Accident
1.6 Concluding Thoughts
Chapter 2: Columbia's Final Flight
2.1 Mission Objectives and Their Rationales
2.2 Flight Preparation
2.3 Launch Sequence
2.4 On-Orbit Events
2.5 Debris Strike Analysis and Requests for Imagery
2.6 De-Orbit Burn and Re-Entry Events
2.7 Events Immediately Following the Accident
Chapter 3: Accident Analysis
3.1 The Physical Cause
3.2 The External Tank and Foam
3.3 Wing Leading Edge Structural Subsystem
3.4 Image and Transport Analyses
3.5 On-Orbit Debris Separation – The "Flight Day 2" Object
3.7 Debris Analysis
3.8 Impact Analysis and Testing
Chapter 4: Other Factors Considered
4.1 Fault Tree
4.2 Remaining Factors
PART TWO: WHY THE ACCIDENT OCCURRED
Chapter 5: From Challenger to Columbia
5.1 The Challenger Accident and its Aftermath
5.2 The NASA Human Space Flight Culture
5.3 An Agency Trying to Do Too Much With Too Little
5.4 Turbulence in NASA Hits the Space Shuttle Program
5.5 When to Replace the Space Shuttle?
5.6 A Change in NASA Leadership
5.7 The Return of Schedule Pressure
Chapter 6: Decision Making at NASA
6.1 A History of Foam Anomalies
6.2 Schedule Pressure
6.3 Decision-Making During the Flight of STS-107
6.4 Possibility of Rescue or Repair
Chapter 7: The Accident's Organizational Causes
7.1 Organizational Causes: Insights from History
7.2 Organizational Causes: Insights from Theory
7.3 Organizational Causes: Evaluating Best Safety Practices
7.4 Organizational Causes: A Broken Safety Culture
7.5 Organizational Causes: Impact of a Flawed Safety Culture on STS-107
7.6 Findings and Recommendations
Chapter 8: History as Cause: Columbia and Challenger
8.1 Echoes of Challenger
8.2 Failures of Foresight: Two Decision Histories and the Normalization of Deviance
8.3 System Effects: The Impact of History and Politics on Risky Work
8.4 Organization, Culture, and Unintended Consequences
8.5 History as Cause: Two Accidents
8.6 Changing NASA's Organizational System
PART THREE: A LOOK AHEAD
Chapter 9: Implications for the Future of Human Space Flight
9.1 Near-Term: Return to Flight
9.2 Mid-Term: Continuing to Fly
9.3 Long-Term: Future Directions for the U.S.in Space
Chapter 10: Other Significant Observations
10.1 Public Safety
10.2 Crew Escape and Survival
10.3 Shuttle Engineering Drawings and Closeout Photographs
10.4 Industrial Safety and Quality Assurance
10.5 Maintenance Documentation
10.6 Orbiter Maintenance Down Period/Orbiter Major Modification
10.7 Orbiter Corrosion
10.8 Brittle Fracture of A-286 Bolts
10.9 Hold-Down Post Cable Anomaly
10.10 Solid Rocket Booster External Tank Attachment Ring
10.11 Test Equipment Upgrades
10.12 Leadership/Managerial Training
Chapter 11 Recommendations