Congress Begins Own NASA Probe : Stronger Action Urged Amid Praise for Rogers Report
Congress launched its own investigation of the Challenger accident Tuesday, lauding the just-completed probe by a blue-ribbon presidential commission as a starting place for rebuilding the United States’ shattered space program.
Members of the House and Senate space committees heaped effusive congratulations upon former Secretary of State William P. Rogers and former astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, who led the presidential panel’s investigation.
But two Democratic senators sounded the first discordant notes Tuesday afternoon, suggesting that the 256-page report issued Monday had not sufficiently pinned down the blame for the worst accident since the dawn of manned spaceflight more than 25 years ago.
Sees ‘Zeal’ to Avert Blame
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) said he found in the official accident report “almost a zeal to make certain that individual responsibility was not fixed.”
Hollings said that events recounted in the official accident report and disclosures since the Jan. 28 tragedy convinced him that Lawrence B. Mulloy, a Marshall Space Flight Center official who had a central role in persuading Morton Thiokol Inc. to drop its objections to the launch, had been guilty of “gross negligence . . . willful gross misconduct.”
At the same time, Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) told Rogers and Armstrong that he agreed with Hollings that “something a little stronger” is needed and that he wants assurances that people who “behaved improperly” will not again make important decisions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
In Huntsville, Ala., Mulloy issued a strong defense of his actions. Citing a part of the report that contended he gave misleading testimony on whether top NASA officials were told of concerns about the seals in the solid rocket boosters, he said: “I can assure you, I told the truth when I testified.”
He added: “I’ll decide later whether there’s something (else) to talk about.”
In the report, which ended a four-month investigation, the Rogers commission concluded Monday that the immediate physical cause of the disaster was poorly designed seals in the boosters. But although it was caustic in its criticism of the space agency, the commission avoided assessing personal blame.
A question of possible criminal action was first raised Tuesday morning by Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), a member of the House Science and Technology Committee.
But Rogers responded that, while the commission had not considered the issue, he was personally “satisfied that it would be unwise to proceed criminally.”
“I don’t believe there was any venality here and I don’t believe there was gross neglect,” he told the House panel.
Officials at the Marshall center, he said, had believed that they had the right to make the final decision on the hotly debated question of whether the rocket seal would perform satisfactorily in temperatures that had barely climbed above freezing by the time the Challenger was launched.
Before the Senate panel, Rogers reiterated his stand that any prosecution for criminal negligence would not be in the national interest.
Thinking About Pocketbook
Hollings said he was not advocating prosecution, but he contended that by assigning individual responsibility in the accident, “you fix some of the Lucases, Mulloys and the people at Morton Thiokol who said: ‘Let’s forget about safety and think about the pocketbook.’ ”
The Lucas referred to was the Marshall director, William R. Lucas, who last week announced his retirement after a decade as director of the Huntsville installation.
Rogers told the Senate and House committees that he believes Morton Thiokol had yielded to Marshall officials’ pressure to press ahead with the launch because the company wanted to please its biggest customer.
Second Rocket Source
Differing with that characterization, Hollings said he believes that Thiokol managers went against the advice of their own engineers because their contract with NASA was being renegotiated and a move was under way to find a second source for the shuttle’s solid rockets.
NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher and shuttle program director Richard H. Truly will testify today before the House panel and they are expected to be closely questioned about NASA’s views on the Rogers commission’s major recommendations.
Several steps already had been taken to comply with the panel’s recommendations even before the report was released, but others still are a subject of intense discussion.
Among the latter is the commission’s recommendation that the redesigned booster rocket be test-fired in a vertical position--an expensive test that might make NASA’s July, 1987, target date for launching another shuttle impossible.
Could Take Two Years
Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Tuesday that it would take as much as two years to construct a new facility for such a test.
But Armstrong, the commission vice chairman, said there are a number of facilities that might be modified, avoiding the costly and timely process of building a new test stand. The possibility also is being considered of testing the redesigned rocket in free flight.
Even after Monday’s report, as Rogers explained in careful detail Tuesday how Challenger and its crew of seven perished, the commission chairman said it remains at times difficult to believe that the tragedy could have occurred.
NASA had insisted that safety was everybody’s business, he said, “but if you leave it to everybody, you leave it to nobody, and in a sense that is what happened here.”
Rumor About Pressure
Although the report was acclaimed as a model for future presidential commissions by many members of Congress, Hollings criticized Rogers for not pursuing more aggressively the rumor that pressure had been exerted on launch officials because President Reagan planned to mention in his State of the Union address teacher-astronaut Sharon Christa McAuliffe, who would have been orbiting the Earth at that time.
Angered by Hollings’ persistent questioning, Rogers repeatedly declared that no such incident ever occurred.
“I hope the rumor dies,” Rogers said heatedly. “I hope it dies. . . . If we keep talking about it, some people will believe it happened--it didn’t happen.”
Indeed, he told Hollings: “If you can prove it happened, I’ll come back here and apologize to you.”