CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Legendary astronaut John Young said yesterday, on the verge of his retirement, that NASA has not changed its safety culture since the Columbia accident but has done all it can to improve the space shuttle and should return to space flight as soon as possible.
NASA and the nation should accept the failure rate of 1-in-57 shuttle flights, Young said, emphasizing that space exploration is well worth the risk.
''We should be operating it, flying it, right now because there's just not a lot we can do to make it any better," said 74-year-old Young, the nation's longest-serving astronaut, the ninth man to walk on the moon, and a man often described as NASA's conscience.
In an interview two weeks before his retirement, the Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle commander said it is difficult for a big bureaucracy such as NASA to change its ways. He said it will probably be a long time before the space agency alters the way it thinks and behaves.
''I was in the astronaut office the other day and I asked them how many people thought NASA had changed its culture, and nobody raised their hand," Young said. ''There were about 100 people there, so that's how they feel right now."
The Columbia accident investigators attributed the disaster as much to the afraid-to-speak-up mentality among NASA personnel as to the chunk of foam that pierced the spaceship's left wing during liftoff.
Like many others at NASA, Young said he regrets he did not make a fuss over the blow from the foam at the time. The outspoken astronaut known for his blistering memos after the 1986 Challenger disaster questioned an engineer three days into Columbia's doomed flight and was assured: ''Don't worry. There's nothing. It didn't hit it."
''I worried about it. I always worry about damage," said Young, commander of Columbia's inaugural flight in 1981. ''But there's nothing you can do about it if they said it's OK."
Besides, he said, he never dreamed that the reinforced carbon lining the edges of the wings could be damaged: ''When I was flying it, the way they put it to me was that you could almost hit the carbon-carbon with a sledgehammer and nothing would hurt it."
Young, the first man to fly six times in space, acknowledged that the shuttle is a ''very old vehicle" and that given its complexity, it is difficult to predict what will go wrong next. But he said, ''We just have to keep flying it the way it is."
Last week, the space agency acknowledged it has yet to develop kits that astronauts can use to repair Columbia-type gashes but said it would proceed toward a May or June launch of Discovery.
''When you're developing the design and developing hardware, you make it as safe as you can when you start with, but once you get there, you take what you've got. You use it," Young said.