Press Release

Science Democrats Seek Comprehensive and Clearly Independent Accident Review Board

By SpaceRef Editor
February 6, 2003
Filed under , ,

Rep. Ralph M. Hall (D-TX), Ranking Democratic Member of the House Science Committee, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), Ranking Democratic Member of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, and thirteen of their Democratic colleagues have written President George Bush to recommend an expansion of the charter and the composition of the Accident Investigation Board (AIB), the independent inquiry currently examining the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

Drawing on the “truly independent, broad-ranging” example provided by the 1986 Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (the Rogers Commission) their letter calls for:

  • “a broad mandate encompassing contributory causes, management issues, and pressures on the system”;
  • the Board to report to the President and the Congress, not the NASA Administrator;
  • the staff serving the Board to be drawn from agencies other than NASA; and
  • addition of new Board members “drawn from among distinguished leaders of the government, and the scientific, technical, and management communities,”

as was the case with the Rogers Commission.  Administrator O’Keefe has already indicated a willingness to consider additional Board members.

The text of the letter follows:

February 6, 2003

The President
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President:

In the wake of the Shuttle Columbia tragedy, we agree with NASA’s decision to promptly constitute both internal and external investigating teams.   The external team – known as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (AIB) and chaired by Admiral Hal Gehman – has already begun its deliberations.

A week after the Challenger accident in 1986, President Reagan appointed the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, chaired by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers.  The 13-member Rogers panel included former astronauts, a Nobel Laureate in physics, academic and industry engineers, the long-time editor of Aviation Week, a renowned astronomer, and Air Force generals.  Other than administrative support staff, there were no NASA employees among the Commission’s 50-odd staff members. 

The Rogers Commission did a remarkable job in just four months, producing not only an excellent description of the proximate causes of the accident but also a wealth of findings and recommendations on a broad range of relevant topics.  The titles of some of the chapters of the Commission’s report – “The Contributing Cause of the Accident”, “An Accident Rooted in History”, “The Silent Safety Program”, “Pressures on the System”, and “Other Safety Considerations” – give testimony to the range of issues illuminated by Secretary Rogers and the other Commission members.

The basic charge to the AIB is similar to that provided to the Rogers Commission, with one exception.  The Rogers’ Commission charter provided that:

“The Commission shall be composed of not more than 20 members appointed or designated by the President (Reagan).  The members shall be drawn from among distinguished leaders of the government, and the scientific, technical, and management communities”.

The AIB charter states that:

        “The Board will conduct activities in accordance with direction from the NASA Administrator …”

All of the support personnel initially provided to the AIB are senior NASA officials.

While we commend the openness with which NASA has shared information on the Columbia accident with the public and the Congress, we are concerned that the AIB has the appearance of a non-independent board controlled by NASA.  This is in contrast to President Reagan’s establishment of the Rogers Commission, which provided for a truly independent, broad-ranging panel.

We would respectfully ask that the charter of the AIB be re-drafted to reflect a broad mandate encompassing contributory causes, management issues, and pressures on the system.  In addition, we would recommend that, to ensure its complete independence, the AIB should report directly to you and to the Congress and that the support staff for the Board should come from agencies other than NASA.  This is not meant in any way to demean the dedication and excellence of NASA’s workforce, but to ensure, as President Reagan did 17 years ago, that the AIB would proceed in as unfettered and open a manner as possible.  Finally we would suggest that the membership of the AIB be expanded in a manner similar to that of the Rogers Commission, and that Administrator O’Keefe solicit suggestions for new members from key Members of Congress.  Mr. O’Keefe has already indicated a willingness to consider Congressional nominations.

We share your commitment to honoring our fallen astronauts by continuing with a safe, robust national space program.


/s/ Ralph M. Hall

/s/ Bart Gordon

/s/ Jerry Costello

/s/ Sheila Jackson Lee

/s/ Bob Etheridge

/s/ Nick Lampson

/s/ Mark Udall

/s/ David Wu

/s/ Brian Baird

/s/ Michael M. Honda

/s/ John B. Larson

/s/ Chris Bell

/s/ Timothy Bishop

/s/ Lincoln Davis

/s/ Anthony Weiner

SpaceRef staff editor.