5 February 2003
Within hours of the Columbia disaster, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe promised there would be two thorough investigations -- one by the agency itself, the other by a board working independently of NASA.
But how independent can the independent board be?
Its 10 members, who include three NASA officials, were appointed by NASA. Its small staff consists of people on loan from NASA. And it remains to be seen just how much authority the board will have in gathering information that might embarrass NASA.
The space agency was widely criticized for its investigation into the Challenger explosion in 1986. Critics said NASA stonewalled and covered up crucial details about the risks of cold-weather launches.
Robert Hotz, a former editor of Aviation Week and Space Technology and a member of an independent commission that investigated the Challenger disaster, said NASA has a history of trying to hide its problems.
"NASA wanted to investigate itself -- it still does," Hotz said Tuesday.
He said the outside panel investigating Saturday's Columbia accident needs to have the power and independence to reach its own conclusions.
David Thomas, a former Federal Aviation Administration official who served on NASA's investigation board until he retired three years ago, is more optimistic.
The current members have tremendous experience with safety programs and accident investigation, Thomas said. Although the panel did not investigate any accidents during his term, he said meetings and exercises showed the panel to be independent.
"We had 100 percent autonomy," he said. "I felt we had carte blanche from NASA to do what we needed to do."
The 10-member panel was appointed by O'Keefe and his predecessors. It is headed by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., who chaired the independent commission that investigated the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.
Other members include Rear Adm. Stephen Turcotte of the Naval Safety Center; Maj. Gen. John L. Barry of the Air Force Materiel Command; Maj. Gen. Kenneth W. Hess, chief of safety at Kirtland Air Force Base; James N. Hallock, aviation safety division chief at the U.S. Department of Transportation; Steven B. Wallace, director of accident investigation for the FAA; and Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, commander of the 21st Space Wing.
The panel also includes three NASA officials: G. Scott Hubbard, director of NASA's Ames Research Center; Bryan D. O'Connor, NASA's associate administrator; and Theron Bradley Jr., NASA's chief engineer from its headquarters.
It is a volunteer panel, an agency spokesman said, but the members are government employees who will receive their usual salaries or retirement benefits.
The panel was created in the mid 1990s but has never been dispatched to a major accident. Several members, including Gehman, were appointed this week.
Ron Dittemore, the NASA official heading the internal investigation, has been praised for his candor and his early release of information. Yet even his admirers question whether the investigation is relying too heavily on Dittemore and other insiders.
"They have to get the public's confidence back," said Greg Feith, a former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. "The worst thing in the world -- NASA would go out of business if this happened -- would be if there was any smell that NASA had covered up the investigation process."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday that President Bush has no immediate plans to appoint a separate commission similar to the one for the Challenger accident because NASA has the independent panel.
Although the Gehman board's small staff is supplied by NASA, Thomas said it could seek outside help if needed.
"We always had the opportunity to say we wanted more work done and we want it done by different resources," Thomas said.
Feith praised Dittemore, the leader of the internal investigation, for his willingness to talk about possible NASA mistakes. But Feith said NASA needs to make sure the Gehman board is truly independent.
"There are still people writing conspiracy theory books about TWA Flight 800," Feith said. "They'll do the same about the shuttle if this doesn't look right."