What’s next for NASA?

They are tight-knit communities.

For those who live and work in and around Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County, the pain caused by Saturday’s disaster is no doubt very difficult and all too familiar.

Those working in the space industry know the odds. Fatal accidents occur about once in every 100 flights. It has been 17 years and 88 flights since the Challenger tragedy, which came about two decades after the Apollo I fire.

The NASA community now faces a somber task. The agency must pick up the pieces and move forward. It did so successfully after its last two tragedies. Now it has to try to do it again.

In attacking the problem, administrators may want to follow the lead of their predecessors. And that starts right at the top with the president.

In 1986 Ronald Reagan embodied what the American people needed in a president. He was a tough leader, wiping his eyes and thrusting forward. He soothed the public and reassured them that American space exploration would continue. Less than three years later, NASA had found the answers to the tragedy, and Americans were back in orbit.

President George W. Bush would be smart to follow Reagan’s lead. And, at least in the first 48 hours since the crash, he has done just that. Bush took to the lectern Saturday afternoon and delivered a mournful, moving speech to the nation.

But his most important move so far may have come on Sunday. The Washington Post’s Web site reported that Bush will call for $470 million to be infused into NASA’s budget during the coming year. Money is always important for agencies such as NASA, but feelings of support and resolve from the top is just as vital.

NASA should also take a page from its own playbook when it comes to handling tragedy. The agency must, as it did after Challenger, act swiftly and publicly. If it does so, the public will more than likely renew its support.

When the Challenger exploded, NASA reacted immediately. The agency committed 6,000 workers to piecing together the debris. NASA found the parties who were to blame, which included some of its own people. Those parties were held publicly accountable.

Most importantly for the public, a cause was found. In one of history’s disturbing ironies, the failure of a $900 piece of rubber brought down the $1.2 billion machine.

NASA has given every indication that it will act similarly with the Columbia accident. Three panels have already been established to sort through data. NASA officials have vowed to work day and night until an answer is found and shuttles can be returned to space.

On Sunday, NASA began releasing to the public some startling evidence about the final moments of the Columbia’s flight, including the last transmissions from the crew. Evidence, according to NASA, shows a temperature spike in the left landing gear hold and left wing, and computer warnings that indicate possible hydraulic problems in that wing.

But it was an announcement about the external fuel tank that could be most notable. NASA admitted that instead of employing one of its new, light-weight tanks it had said would be used on the flight, it had used one of its last two out-dated, heavier tanks. Those older tanks were supposed to be phased out beginning in 2000.

The type of tank may have had no effect on the crash. However, that admission is important, especially considering that much of the discussion has turned toward a piece of foam that broke off of the tank during lift off and hit the Columbia’s suspect left wing.

NASA’s admission is a sign they are willing to be honest about evidence, even if it places blame on the agency itself. Also, the release of evidence Sunday shows that NASA is already working to provide answers.

So what will happen in the coming months?

In 1986, NASA had an answer to the question of why within a matter of months. It is unknown when an answer for the Columbia will be known, though there are several similarities between the two tragedies.

When Challenger exploded, NASA had great visual evidence. Each launch is filmed by a multitude of cameras. Analysis of the Challenger films immediately showed where the problem occurred.

There is little visual evidence — except for after the fact — on the Columbia. However, NASA has said that there is evidence from military satellites. In addition, the space shuttle’s incredible number of sensors allow ground control to “see” what’s going on without visual contact.

It is those sensors that have already been used to pinpoint the problem.

Within hours, Challenger investigators knew they had to look at the solid rocket boosters. The Columbia investigators know that the left wing was probably the trouble spot. That leads them back to video evidence from the launch, when the wing may have been damaged.

Early speculation led to a number of possible causes for the crash. But, just 24 hours later, evidence had already eliminated several of these. NASA administrators can only hope that a conclusion comes as swiftly and decisively as it did for Challenger.

Then, the most important question of all will be asked: What can be done to avoid another tragedy?

There will be the design and safety changes. But NASA will probably have to again attack one of the major contributors to the Challenger accident: complacency.

After years of successful flights, NASA became complacent. Many of the fatal decisions for Challenger were made by leadership with a “there probably won’t be a problem” attitude.

NASA made a series of safety changes following the accident. Complacency may not have played an immediate role in the Columbia’s crash, but if nothing else, Saturday was a sobering reminder of the courage of astronauts, one that cannot be taken for granted.

And, most importantly, the government may realize the need for change. The shuttle fleet is old and expensive. Bush’s $470 million will be partially used for research to find a new space craft that will be cheaper and safer. NASA may now hope that the disaster will force a complacent government to change.

As NASA plunges into the next few months, it will have to ask several questions. What will happen to the astronauts on the International Space Station? If those astronauts use a Russian capsule to come home, can the agency afford the embarrassment of an empty, multi-billion dollar station? When can a shuttle fly again?

It may be quite some time before America will know when another shuttle will fly. But, if history is any indication, NASA will return triumphantly to space.

The agency has already begun its hard, humble work toward that goal. And America’s appreciation will probably again be renewed for those brave few who willingly defy the laws of nature and hurl their bodies at unnatural speeds through uninhabitable places.