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Public Statements

The Space Shuttle Columbia Accident

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

February 12, 2003 Wednesday

HEADLINE: HEARING OF THE SENATE COMMERCE, SCIENCE, AND TRANSPORTATION COMMITTEE
 
SUBJECT: THE SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA ACCIDENT
 
SEN. MARIA CANTWELL (D-WA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

And thank you, Mr. O'Keefe, for your diligence today. I've been to several meetings since I first checked in here this morning and I think you've had a total of a five minute break. So we thank you for your diligence in answering these questions.

I don't think any of my colleagues have asked specifically about the lessons learned from the Challenger inquiry, and I don't know if in this current configuration of the Columbia inquiry you think that we have a sufficient independent scientist on this review team?

MR. O'KEEFE: Yes, Senator. Very specifically, the contingency plan and the activation of an investigative board is a direct outgrowth and a direct education from the Challenger accident. So what we've put in motion on the day of the accident was something that was a lesson learned from Challenger. It was part of the Rogers Commission recommendations of how we would proceed in various cases, and this is an outgrowth of one of their concerns which is how to get ahead of these cases as quickly as possible.

The investigative board was appointed the same day as the accident. So as a result, that was a very clear result of a lesson learned that came from that. So an awful lot of what we're attempting to do here is to build on that experience and assure that we have a result in this case that is driven by our interest and absolute dedication to finding the answers to what called the terrible tragedy, find the solutions to it, the fixes, and get about the business of getting back to safe flight to support the folks aboard International Space Station.

SEN. CANTWELL: So who is that independent scientist then on --

MR. O'KEEFE: I'm sorry. The independent—there is—spoke as recently as last night to Admiral Hal Gehman, who is the chairman of the current board, who has five different folks he has in mind I'm told who are physicists, scientists, et cetera, that he is considering to propose for addition on the board. I've advised him whoever he wants to put on that board that will expand his expertise, that will improve the independence of the board, help its objectivity, we will do it without qualification and without hesitation.

SEN. CANTWELL: Well, I am struck reading last night and this morning the Feynman Minority Report to that report that I think finally got in as an appendix, and which Mr. Feynman was very critical of discrepancies between engineers and managers as the probability of failure. So you had engineers having studies and analysis saying that maybe the risk is a lot higher than what the high level managers thought. The criteria used for flight readiness reviews often developed a gradual decreasing strictness. If the shuttle had flown with it before, chances are it worked before so let's just—let's not think about the variations that might happen.

The Feynman report even said NASA might have exaggerated the reliability of the product, that there were variations in models, that NASA was more of a top down system in testing the entire system instead of testing the individual properties and limitations of the material within the shuttle. To the degree that I think the report was quite critical of NASA, in the sense of maybe even coming to Congress and catering to us and the public relations expectations that were there by the public, instead of relying back on this basic engineering information.

So I guess my concern is that the panel, as I see it now, doesn't have that Feynman voice. And I think what we really do want to do here is make sure that we are not engaged in that PR battle, but understanding how we really do build the NASA systems of the future with more reliability and predictability based on those materials. And so I'd be very interested in how those recommendations were actually implemented, because I have a feeling we might find the same circumstances are true here. We're going to find out that there is some material property limitations that were discovered in some report written by some engineer that somewhere along the way got translated into not as big a risk, and thereby the disaster that we have all been dealing with. So --

REP. BOEHLERT: Thank you very much, Senator.

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