NASA to add more 'voices' to panel
Democrats questioned board's ability because of agency links
February 7, 2003
SHREVEPORT, La. -- Congressional Democrats who urged President Bush to name a "truly independent, broad-ranging panel" to investigate the shuttle Columbia disaster got their wish Thursday.
As the panel members arrived in Houston, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told reporters the government planned to revise the charter of the board to allow for additional members. The new members, O'Keefe said, will likely be people without any "specific association or involvement with NASA," and will add new expertise and new "voice." "This is to absolutely guarantee that we eliminated any ambiguity as to the independence of this board," O'Keefe said. "We want to be sure that we are not eliminating any sort of possibilities of what could have contributed to this accident." O'Keefe's announcement came after 16 House Democrats sent a letter to President Bush urging him to expand the panel and its charter, which calls for it to answer to NASA, not to the president or Congress. The Democrats' letter said the panel had the "appearance of a non-independent board controlled by NASA."
Critics have argued the original 10-member Accident Investigation Board would rubberstamp NASA's conclusions on what went wrong Saturday when the orbiter burned and broke apart during re-entry, killing its seven astronauts.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Tallahassee, said President Bush should appoint an outside panel to probe the Columbia break up if NASA and its board of experts investigating the crash didn't determine the cause within "a reasonable period of time." Nelson conducted hearings on the 1986 shuttle Challenger explosion and the safety of the shuttle program in 2001.
Nelson said NASA initially tried to oversee the Challenger investigation, but allegations of a cover-up for failing to release information showing failures by the agency prompted President Ronald Reagan to appoint a commission headed by former Secretary of State William Rogers to investigate the Challenger disaster.
Nelson said NASA's Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board probing the Columbia is filled with "fairly substantial and respectable people," including the chairman, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. Gehman.
However, the senator said he is willing to give the panel "a short time" to prove itself before calling for more independent oversight.
An aviation investigator also questioned whether the panel would have had the power to stand up to NASA. John Macidull, who served with a federal board that reviewed the Challenger explosion in 1986, said the panel heading the Columbia probe wasn't independent enough to question NASA's findings. He suggested the National Transportation Safety Board should oversee the investigation.
The NASA staffers on the panel may not want to challenge their bosses' conclusions, said Macidull, who has investigated about 100 plane crashes and has co-written a book criticizing the Challenger investigation.
"Unless the panel has some independent engineering experience, they will buy what NASA says," said Macidull of Alexandria, Va. "NASA appointed them. That's a big problem. I don't know how they will be completely unbiased . . . NASA is telling the panel what the conclusions are."
Macidull served as a staffer to the Rogers commission.
The Democrats recommended a new investigation committee that would be similar to the 13-member board created by Reagan. The Rogers commission and its some 50 staff members did not include NASA staffers with the exception of administrative support workers.
Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said he fears the board's conclusions would not be credible unless it is clearly perceived as independent. Gordon is the ranking Democrat on the House space subcommittee. "The so-called external review commission is appointed by NASA, staffed by NASA, and reports back to the NASA administrator," Gordon said."As able as these individuals are, I'm afraid there will be a credibility problem with their report." Gordon said the board needs to look broadly at NASA itself, to see if organizational problems contributed to the loss of Columbia, as was the case in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. "
An independent panel with too much of an arm's length relationship to NASA would have too much "naivete" about the shuttle program, said Richard Blomberg, former chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, formed by Congress after the Apollo 1 fire in 1967. Blomberg was chairman of the NASA-chartered panel from 1998 to 2002, and began serving with the committee in 1987. "It took me a long time to get full comprehension of what it takes to fly a space shuttle," he said.
Blomberg said NASA staffers on the Columbia accident review board, such as Bryan O'Connor, are "crucial to the understanding of the context" of what happened Saturday.
Besides O'Connor, who spent 386 hours in space covering nearly 6 million miles in 253 earth orbits, other NASA staffers on the Columbia commission are Scott Hubbard, who redesigned NASA's Mars program, and Theron Bradley Jr., NASA chief engineer.
"Bryan O'Connor will stand up to anybody. He will keep the process in the realities of the space shuttle," Blomberg said.
Blomberg said it would be appropriate for the NTSB to help in the investigation, but he didn't agree with Macidull that the NTSB should run the Columbia probe. "The challenge of this board is to be able to go beyond what NASA comes up with," Blomberg said.
Tom Young, former president of Martin Marietta and who has served on review boards, said NASA did the right thing in appointing the original group.
Young said the board members are close enough to NASA to understand what went wrong and what needs to be done to fix the problem. "NASA won't let this be a whitewash. There's no advantage to anyone covering this up because we're going to fly again," Young said.
But there are those who argue otherwise.
"NASA has a very spotty record when it comes to investigations," said Les Blattner, who co-wrote, "Challenger Shadow," with Macidull and who has written several books on air safety issues. "Why did we create the NTSB if we don't allow them to do this?
"It's important that accident investigators be involved, not program managers," said Blattner, who lives in Maryland. "The problem is that with NASA, there's a lot of red herring being thrown around. I want honest-to-God accident investigators, people who understand calamity, someone who's not afraid to ask hard questions."
Sam Beddingfield, a retired NASA engineer who worked on the shuttle program, said he hopes the independent review board doesn't blindly accept NASA's conclusions.
"That's not the way you should do it," said Beddingfield, a Titusville resident who retired from NASA in 1985.
Blattner added: "I hope we find out what really happened to Columbia. Furthermore, if it turns out something was overlooked, or allowed to happen, I hope we punish those responsible. Not only Columbia's crew is watching, so are the seven who lost their lives in Challenger."