NASA grants more independence to board investigating Columbia

By Tamara Lytle The Orlando Sentinel (KRT) WASHINGTON _ NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe moved late Wednesday to quell criticism of a commission investigating the Columbia disaster by giving it more independence. Earlier in the day, during the first in a series of congressional hearings on the Columbia disaster, O’Keefe came under fire from Republicans and Democrats for creating an investigating panel with too many ties to NASA and its leader. Hours after he testified before a joint meeting of the Senate Commerce and House Science committees, O’Keefe agreed to let the commission, led by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., set its own policies and decide how to release its results, instead of working through NASA. “NASA will do whatever it takes to ensure the integrity of the Gehman board as it works to identify the cause of this horrific accident,” O’Keefe said. Lawmakers had complained that the commission’s report would be sent to NASA instead of directly to the public and that the board needed NASA approval for its policies. “At first blush, it looks like it has addressed our concerns,” Heidi Tringe, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a critic of the panel, said late Wednesday. “But we need some time to review it.” In testimony before Congress, O’Keefe defended NASA’s decisions on space shuttle funding, its assessment that the shuttle’s heat-shielding tiles were not at risk of failure and other safety decisions. But, O’Keefe said, if the independent commission finds flaws in NASA that contributed to Columbia’s disintegration over Texas as it streaked toward its landing, NASA will accept the commission’s conclusions and fix any problems. Seven astronauts died in the Feb. 1 accident. “We’re going to be guided by the Gehman board,” O’Keefe said at the hearing, the first of what promises to be the most extensive congressional probe of NASA and the nation’s space policies since 1986, when the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after it launched from Kennedy Space Center. O’Keefe came under increasing criticism Wednesday morning for creating the Gehman commission _ formally known as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board _ without giving it enough independence from NASA. Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, demanded that the commission be allowed to set its own policies. “We all want the board to be independent, not just in name but in fact,” Boehlert said. O’Keefe named the panel within hours of the Columbia disaster and appointed each member, leading some critics to question whether the panel is too close to NASA and its administrator to be objective. Some have called for a presidential commission that reports directly to the White House, like the independent panel that conducted a blistering probe of NASA after Challenger. During the hearing, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said the Gehman panel’s investigation “won’t pass anybody’s smell test of independence.” Although the Gehman commission has NASA staff and advisers, O’Keefe noted that only one NASA employee serves on the panel and that the other members do not have direct ties to the space agency. “We are not investigating ourselves,” O’Keefe said. “This is an independent group that has no baggage to carry in terms of NASA.” (EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) After the hearing, O’Keefe told Boehlert that Gehman was considering asking for additional experts on the panel. O’Keefe pledged to appoint anyone Gehman recommends. “I’ll take whatever those names are,” he told Boehlert. “We hear you and we’re moving.” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the often outspoken chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said many experts would be watching the Gehman panel to see whether it was independent enough. “It’s going to depend on the performance of the panel,” he said. O’Keefe spoke for nearly 50 minutes before answering questions for about three hours. On his lapel he wore Columbia’s STS-107 mission pin, bearing the names of the seven astronauts around the outline of the shuttle. “Believe me,” he told the committee members, “none of the questions you will ask can be any tougher than those we are asking ourselves.” Rep. Ralph Hall, D-Texas, the top Democrat on the House Science Committee, said he knew three of the fallen astronauts personally and called it “one of the most painful hearings I’ve ever had to try to get prepared for.” Little of the hearing focused on the cause of the crash because the probe is in its infancy. But Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, R-S.C., said it was clear to him that the heat-shielding tiles on the shuttle should be the focus. A piece of insulating foam may have damaged the tiles and the leading edge of the left wing during launch on Jan. 16. “They are trying to avoid, frankly, getting to the true cause,” Hollings said. “Everybody knows damage at liftoff is the true cause.” (END OPTIONAL TRIM) O’Keefe said NASA is being careful to make sure all possible causes are investigated. “I want to avoid any favorite theory,” he said. O’Keefe likened the foam that flew off during the launch to a Styrofoam cooler flying off of a pickup truck on the highway. Similar incidents in the past had resulted in no major damage. Lawmakers pressed O’Keefe on whether NASA should have tried to get photographs of Columbia’s belly after the launch to determine whether the tiles were damaged. “Why wasn’t that requested during the flight to do a greater examination of this kind of damage?” asked Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. O’Keefe said thousands of sensors on the ship did not indicate a problem. “All the information we have now suggest no abnormalities that would point in that direction,” he said. O’Keefe repeatedly was questioned about whether NASA had ignored warnings that safety was slipping on NASA’s fleet of shuttles, of which three remain. “There have been numerous warning flags regarding the health of the shuttle program in recent years,” Gordon said. (EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) McCain asked how to reconcile NASA assurances in 2001 that the shuttles were safe with comments in 2002 by Richard Blomberg, head of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, that he was more worried than ever about shuttle safety. O’Keefe said those concerns were about the future. “As it pertained to current flight operations, there was no concern I know of,” he said. (END OPTIONAL TRIM) The non-partisan Congressional Research Service released a history of shuttle funding Wednesday, showing funding dropped from $4.8 billion in 1992 to $3.3 billion last year. Several Democratic lawmakers complained NASA had cut back on safety upgrades for the shuttle as the fleet was aging. Columbia, the oldest orbiter, was built in 1979 and first flew in 1981. But O’Keefe said that NASA became more efficient as it cut costs, contending that while shuttle funding dropped, quality improved. The number of pre-launch problems and incidents in orbit fell during that time, he noted repeatedly. (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) But Hollings questioned whether the shuttle was safe even with the upgrades. “I’ve heard enough about these upgrades. We’ve lost 14 astronauts and $5 billion in hardware with these upgrades,” he said, referring to the seven astronauts who died aboard both Columbia and Challenger. “Tiles flying off and everything, you’d still want to use them until 2020?” Lawmakers also questioned NASA decisions not to create a way for astronauts to escape from a doomed shuttle and the inability for astronauts to inspect tiles for damage during a flight. O’Keefe said technological problems with each situation couldn’t be surmounted but that NASA will reevaluate if the Gehman panel finds those factors contributed to the crash. ___ (Orlando Sentinel correspondents Sean Mussenden and Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this report.) ___ ‘copy 2003, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at On America Online, use keyword: OSO. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.