Tuesday, February 4, 2003 at 1:00am

Most of the time it takes a catastrophic event to signal profound systematic change. That will definitely be true with the Columbia disaster.

Many of us not intimately familiar with the shuttle program, when program manager Ron Dittemore met with reporters Saturday afternoon, were shocked to find out that the shuttle basically had no escape plan. Astronauts on the doomed flight had no way to check to see if the damaged wing tiles posed a significant problem. And even if they had known, there was virtually nothing they could have done about it.

This, of course, is not shocking to the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, which has been worried about increasingly lax safety standards at NASA for years. Safety experts point to several factors in NASA

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