9 Days in September: NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report

By Keith Cowing
September 15, 2003
Filed under ,
9 Days in September: NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report

The process of responding to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report began last week in Washington DC. This process will go on for many weeks and will involve Congress, the media, the White House, and many, many other players. The outcome of this process will, at a minimum lead to the path required to getting the Space Shuttle fleet flying again. This process may also lead to new directions for America’s space program. Then again, it may not.

The week following Labor Day was the first week of Congressional hearings. The Senate led off on Monday, September 2nd with both NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and CAIB Chair Adm. Hal Gehman. The Senate had originally planned to have their first hearing week later, but a little one upsmanship got the better of them and they moved their hearing to the day before the first hearing by the House Science Committee.

The House followed on Tuesday, September 3rd with a hearing featuring Adm. Gehman and several CAIB members. Also on Tuesday Sean O’Keefe met with reporters at NASA Headquarters to do a post mortem on the hearing and on the release of the CAIB report.

On Friday and Saturday O’Keefe met with all of NASA’s Center Directors and Associate Administrators at a retreat outside of Washington DC to discuss NASA’s future plans.

A new week started with the formal public release on Monday at NASA JSC of NASA’s official Return to Flight plan (which had been presented to Congress the previous Friday and was subsequently leaked to the media). Also held on Monday was meeting at NASA Headquarters between O’Keefe and members of the NASA HQ SES (Senior Executive Service).

Another House Science Committee hearing was held on Wednesday September 10th and another press roundtable was held at NASA HQ with Sean O’Keefe on Thursday, September 11th.

By the time this sequence of events had transpired, the tone of what lies ahead was more or less established. Rocket science, government bureaucratic group think, Congressional meddling and oversight, and media bias will all play a role.

If we are all lucky, the sacrifice made by the crew of Columbia (and other crews) in the pursuit of a noble human endeavor might even get some attention.

Meanwhile, an internal policy development effort is underway within the President’s senior staff – one which is looking at some rather forward looking notions (among others) such as sending humans back to the Moon. Meanwhile, Rep. Nick Lampson has reintroduced a rather expansive (if somewhat meandering) bill which calls for a return of humans to the Moon and a human mission to Mars. Across the aisle Rep. Joe Barton is making a singularly lone stand that he will fight to make certain that no American flies aboard the Space Shuttle ever again.

There is clearly no shortage of opinions on what NASA should do – nor is there any a particular political preference for any option- democrats and republicans alike are equally likely to be for or against anyone of the notions being bandied about. This pace will continue more or less unabated for the next several weeks as additional hearings are held and more people weigh in.

Initial reaction

Contrary to what some might of predicted, the outrage one would expect to be unleashed by Congress after a fatal space accident, while spirited, was somewhat muted. This can be directly traced to three things. First, the propensity for the CAIB, throughout its deliberations, to hold multiple hearings in public and to issue interim recommendations as soon as they became apparent to the CAIB.

Second, NASA’s habit of reacting more or less immediately to these recommendations – sometimes with a preplanned implementation of these recommendations.

Third, once released, a report which avoided a gratuitous witch hunt yet spared no expense in routing out the hardware and human causes that led to the accident.

As such, by the time these hearings actually began, much of what was discussed was old news. In some cases, it was rather old news which was already in the process of being digested by all involved. Reaction from members of Congress – both parties, both bodies, was more focused.

This isn’t to suggest that there are not a lot of angry and frustrated lawmakers who want to see NASA make some profound changes in the way it does business. A number of recurrent themes emerged quickly. Some involve factors that arose in the aftermath of the Columbia accident. Others involve previous arguments which are now being waged anew amidst the attention spawned by the accident. And yes, there is a certain amount of finger pointing and partisan posturing to round things out.

What follows is an amalgam of these events and the issues raised with some background and personal observations tossed in.

Ground the Shuttle

Beyond the Shuttle

Separating People From Cargo

Farewell to Faster – Better – Cheaper

More Money Please




Speaking Out



Get With The Program

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.