An Appeal to President Bush: No Challenger Style Presidential Commission for Columbia Accident

Investigation of the Challenger accident became political theatre rather than a rational investigation designed to ferret out problems and their cause. The author urges President Bush to learn from that investigation and avoid them in investigating the Columbia tragedy.

Editor’s Note: One of the members of the team had a front row seat when the Challenger accident occurred. At that time, Susan McGuire Smith was the chief legal counsel at NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. This was the Center responsible for developing the solid rocket motors that contained the infamous “O Rings” that failed on Challenger. She remained at the Marshall Center until her retirement in 1998. She served as the Marshall Chief Counsel for 14 years and then was appointed as Associate Director of Marshall, serving as the institutional manager for the entire center. We asked her to share her personal thoughts on the Columbia accident and the loss of her crew and what lessons the nation should keep in mind from Challenger as we deal with this tragic Columbia accident.

Once again the nation in shock and in mourning for seven astronauts killed in the line of duty. Once again we are jolted into awareness as to just how dangerous our chosen mission to explore space is. Once more the public and the media realize they were taking it all for granted again. And once more our political leaders will be making decisions for dealing with a tragic accident that will dramatically affect the future of the U.S. space program. After dealing with my shock and grief as I watched the news coverage, I found myself wondering if we as a nation will repeat the fundamental mistake made in our handling of the Challenger accident. In the aftermath of that accident, we engaged in political circus rather than disciplined investigation. I implore the White House: this time let’s investigate rather than prosecute.

A little over 17 years ago my staff and I gathered in the law office conference room to watch the launch of Challenger – a brief interlude to enjoy some coffee, watch and be uplifted by another great shuttle launch on a beautiful, crisp Florida morning, and then get on with the work of the day, fired up by our small part in the space adventure. There was the usual light bantering as the launch countdown reached zero, cheers as the incredible, and always amazing space vehicle lifted into the sky and made its way to space, and then sudden silence, punctuated by a single voice: “Uh oh.” Watching, we knew immediately that the Challenger was gone and that the astronauts could not have survived. As we gained control of our shock, we prayed for seven lost souls. Then, along with the rest of the NASA team, we went to work.

At the time of Challenger, I had been with NASA 12 years, but I had never experienced a “catastrophic failure” of a launch vehicle. I had been involved in many accident investigations conducted by the agency, so I fully expected that the highly disciplined NASA accident investigation process would kick into high gear–even as we mourned the loss of our friends and colleagues, to quickly identify the probable cause of the accident, to understand and fix the problem, and to get on with the program. We pulled out the contingency plan and set about doing what had to be done, each organization knowing their part, everyone jumping in. The wisdom and success of the structured, NASA failure investigation process had been demonstrated time and again. Don’t worry about pointing fingers, assigning blame, ducking liability, or hurting feelings. Just figure out what went wrong, why, and put a plan into place to make sure it never happens again. Return to flight operations safely but quickly. Where personnel changes were in order, make them.

In these accident investigations, NASA attorneys were to keep a close watch to make sure that evidence is properly dealt with and preserved, witness statements are taken properly, and the facts are aired completely. Meanwhile we ensured that the investigation was in no way colored by concerns of liability or blame. First and foremost the job was to get all the facts and determine a cause and a fix. Worry about blame or liability later if and when necessary.

There is a simple wisdom in this approach. If witnesses are put on the defensive, then the natural human tendency to defend oneself could interfere with getting all the facts needed. People might clam up, get lawyers, and not bring forth every possible misstep that could have contributed. That is the last thing we ever wanted to happen.

In the first couple of days following Challenger, the highly disciplined NASA investigation process was put into place. But then the NASA process was pre-empted by the decision of the White House to appoint the Challenger Investigation Commission. The commission process that resulted from the decision was rife with mistakes that I hope our political leaders this time around will not permit or repeat.

I understand political prerogatives and I do not question the decision to put an independent oversight commission into place. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the Challenger commission lost sight of investigation and became political theater.

As individual commission members became media celebrities, an entire agency and program were put under a prosecutorial spotlight. The chair of the commission was a lawyer and a former prosecutor. Hearings were held on live TV. Careers and individuals were ruined in public. Engineering judgments – judgments that most of us would be too timid to ever want to be responsible for–were subjected to cross examination, ridicule and scorn, and worse, Monday morning quarterbacking.

Good people were hurt as their careers were jettisoned. These were people who strived their entire careers to make sure they did everything humanly possible to make sure the incredibly dangerous vehicles they worked on were as safe as possible. Their goal was – and still is — first and foremost that the astronauts who fly on these vehicles are protected from harm. And a once proud agency emerged scathed.

From my front row seat, I watched an outstanding organization, a noble agency, almost brought to ruin. Instead of returning to flight in months, it took years. Parts of the agency were pitted against each other, finger pointing and recriminations became routine. And, at the end of the day, NASA bore the total blame for a failure that had as much to do with insufficient national political will and almost criminal under-funding of the shuttle program as it did with the engineering judgments that were second guessed by the commission, the media, and the countless self appointed experts. I believe it was best stated by the then Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that the entire Congress should have been an unindicted co-conspirator in the Challenger accident.

To its credit, through this whole ordeal, NASA stayed true to its own investigative process. The investigation of the Challenger accident actually ran on two parallel tracks. There was the tried and true NASA accident investigation that relentlessly uncovered the causes, including the O-ring, the organizational issues, the infamous pre-launch meetings where warnings were made by some and overridden by others. Behind the scenes, the professionals did what they knew had to be done. The NASA team methodically identified every possible cause, devising the necessary fixes and making them happen. Meanwhile, there was the so-called investigation being staged on the evening news. NASA quietly uncovered the evidence and dirty linen, handed it off to the Commission, and then took the public beating at the commission’s hands.

As painful and divisive as the commission process was, NASA would not be deterred from doing a first rate, thorough accident investigation. The commission process was apparently the political price that had to be paid for failure.

The Challenger commission also reflected what has now become the American psyche. We have zero tolerance for things going wrong. We apparently want all of our undertakings to have no risks. We will not tolerate even the slightest injury, much less a death. If something goes wrong, then someone has to be blamed and must pay the price. Thus, the commission led to a total re-do of the shuttle program, and a makeover of the NASA organization, management, processes, or whatever reflected some imperfection, whether big or small. But you know what? Space travel still remains a dangerous venture and people will probably be hurt or die in the future. But there are thousands who will still jump at the chance, fully knowing the risks. That is human nature at its finest.

I sincerely hope that this White House makes different decisions in the handling of the Columbia accident investigation. I have no issue with oversight by outsiders or an outside commission, but NASA needs to be able to put its disciplined system into play in figuring out what went wrong. This kind of undertaking does take a rocket scientist. The process was already well underway by the end of the day of the accident. NASA has formed an investigative team and an outside review team.

NASA needs also to be permitted to get back to the business of shuttle launches as quickly as NASA deems safely possible. Foreign astronauts and everyday Americans need to continue to join shuttle crews, visit the space station, and dream of the day an Earthling sets foot on Mars and beyond. And all of us have to accept that there will probably be more accidents and more deaths. The astronauts fully accept this, so why shouldn’t the rest of us?

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About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.