The presidential commission probing the Challenger space shuttle accident has launched an investigation of anonymous charges that written materials concerning the spacecraft's flawed booster rocket were destroyed after they were ordered impounded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Commission sources said investigators were dispatched to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, Ala., late Thursday after panel Chairman William P. Rogers received an unsigned letter claiming that the materials had been destroyed or discarded.
The latest twist in the 3 1/2-month investigation was disclosed as the commission neared the completion of a massive report scheduled to be submitted to President Reagan on June 6.
'Appropriate Action' Vowed
Rogers advised space agency officials of the allegations and his decision to order investigators to Huntsville shortly after receiving the letter. NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher then ordered the agency's own inspector general to look into the charges also.
A NASA statement issued Friday said the letter received by the commission charged that "copies of weekly notes in some files at Marshall Space Flight Center were discarded or destroyed following the accident of the Challenger." NASA promised that "appropriate action will be taken as soon as the facts are ascertained."
The Alabama space center, which has responsibility for the shuttle system's solid rocket booster, has been at the focus of the accident investigation almost from the beginning.
Shortly after the tragedy was traced to a malfunction of the Challenger's right rocket booster, investigators learned of a prolonged debate the night before the ill-fated launch. During the discussions, Marshall officials pressed ahead with clearing the liftoff, even though working-level engineers at Morton Thiokol Inc., which manufactures the booster, were concerned about the possible effect of record cold temperatures on seals in the booster.
A source familiar with the letter sent to the presidential investigating commission said it claimed that materials assembled at Marshall in response to requests from investigators were passed up through channels at the space center and that orders were given to keep the documents at the center.
"If relevant documents sought by the commission have in fact been destroyed, it would change the entire complexion of the investigation," said Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on space and technology. "It could become a matter for the Justice Department."
Regular Procedures Cited
A congressional source, who declined to be identified, said discussions with NASA officials indicated that some materials had indeed been destroyed after the impoundment order following the accident, but only as a result of regular procedures' being unwittingly followed rather than a desire to hide information from the commission.
By that account, engineers and officials working on the solid rocket project at Huntsville had established a communication system using "informational notes and non-decision memoranda" that stayed within the project office. The materials, considered to have only temporary value, were periodically destroyed or discarded. NASA officials contended that any destruction of impounded materials resulted from mistaken procedures.
A Morton Thiokol source questioned whether any serious loss could have resulted from the record destruction. He said that a complete set of weekly and monthly engineering reports is kept at the rocket maker's Utah plant, as is "an elaborate log" that documents the creation of every report.
"It's not the bureaucratic way to have only one copy of anything," the Morton Thiokol source said. "There are zillions of people on distribution lists. I don't see how you could destroy an original report in Marshall without still having copies scattered around the country."
The source added: "Of course, I'm the same guy who said Richard Nixon couldn't possibly alter those tapes."
Neither commission nor NASA officials would comment Friday on the progress of the investigation.
Marshall spokesman Robert Ruhl said center officials were cooperating fully.
"Our management was not aware of any records' being destroyed, certainly none that would be pertinent to the investigation," he said. "If such a thing happened, it was a clear violation of the center's intent."
A Substantial Shake-up
The management of the solid rocket project office at Marshall has undergone a substantial shake-up in recent weeks, and two officials involved in the Challenger launch decision have been transferred to other jobs at the center, while another has retired.
Sources close to the commission said the final investigation report will focus much of its criticism on NASA's decision-making process and, particularly, the role of the Huntsville center the night before the launch.
Commissioners were said to have been infuriated when Marshall officials publicly refused to acknowledge mistakes.
The panel held its last session to receive testimony on May 2. It called Marshall and Morton Thiokol officials for more questioning on problems with the solid rocket boosters' joint seals and waivers that permitted flights to continue even though the problems remained unsolved.
At one point during the session, Rogers complained that the problems had been "almost covered up" by the system that kept track of them.
Meanwhile, as early as next week, Reagan is to receive additional information in preparation for a major decision on how he proposes to rebuild the space program in the wake of the Challenger accident.