NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Speaking Out

By Keith Cowing
September 15, 2003
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NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Speaking Out

Shooting Messengers

Under NASA’s previous Administrator, ‘shooting the messenger’ became a highly practiced managerial art. Under Sean O’Keefe, this practice is now openly discouraged. Alas, as is the case with any tragedy, people outside of NASA want to hold someone accountable. In many people’s minds ‘being accountable’ often takes the form of firing people. “Someone ought to lose their job over this” is a common refrain heard in Washington any time a tragedy or a scandal emerges. The aftermath of the Columbia accident is no different.

The CAIB went out of its way not to point fingers at specific individuals – or mete out suggested punishment. But the CAIB did not duck the issue of accountability. According to Adm. Gehman “accountable individuals cannot hide behind ‘bad management’ or ‘culture’. We don’t think this report dodges issue of accountability.” Again, while the CAIB made a pointed effort not to focus on individuals, Gehman noted that there is ample information in the CAIB report should the issue of organizational or individual accountability be pursued by NASA.

Some people have left the agency or have been replaced in their positions after the accident – people in positions of senior responsibility. When a reporter asked O’Keefe on September 3rd if these people were specifically let go because of the accident, O’Keefe said “we do not mean to tar people. There is nothing I have read that says that there needs to be a public display, or execution, or firing squad – although that is often what arises in some cases.”

Reporters have been pushing O’Keefe to get into the details about which people have been reassigned or have left the agency and why – the underlying logic of these attempts being that you would expect that people would be held accountable for their actions – and that being held accountable could include being fired.

Since no one has been identified as having been let go from NASA, the prevailing assumption (at least amongst the media) is that it has not happened. O’Keefe has been rather reluctant to take that bait despite having virtually every reporter try and catch him on this.

In several meetings with reporters, and three hearings, O’Keefe would not say that anyone had been specifically removed or allowed to leave the agency because of the accident. He would not, on the other hand, state that this had not happened – further maddening the press corps and Congress.

I gave the question a shot on September 11th. On my third re-phrasing I asked O’Keefe “were some people – without naming them – specifically removed because of their actions or inactions in regard to the Columbia accident?” O’Keefe replied without a blink “there are people who have left this agency and it is just as well that they are not part of it any more.”

As to the naming of the individual(s) who fit into this category O’Keefe said “I am not going to take the bait. I am trying to make sure it is not about individuals.” When asked the describe the reason(s) whereby one individual or another has been reassigned O’Keefe has also been reluctant to go into detail – out of fairness to those involved. “Each instance has its own associated story and they are all different” he often says.

Speaking Out

One of the most pervasive ‘cultural’ issues noted by the CAIB was the dysfunctional way NASA communicates internally. People are afraid to speak out for fear of recrimination. Despite the departure of Dan Goldin whose tenure at NASA fostered such behavior, the old habits still persist. Indeed, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) is so concerned about this that she has been putting together new ‘whistle blower’ legislation which would enhance the protections offered to those who surface issues at NASA.

On September 10th, in response to a question from Jackson Lee, O’Keefe said “The last thing I want to do is to contribute to this retaliatory atmosphere – one noted in the CIAB report as it related to the accident and witnessed by the panel members themselves. We must enforce and be serious about this. We cannot tolerate repression or suppression. We have a responsibility to resolve issues and move forward. The leadership team has been put place because the have this same view.”

O’Keefe continued “if people don’t want to use OIG hotline, or the NASA Safety Reporting System, there are any number of ways to raise issues. We want to create yet another system such that anyone anywhere at anytime of day who feels that they cannot raise an issue or report a problem can do so. We will be creating an ombudsman functionality at NASA – one seen in other organizations – such that these issues are run to ground.”

When asked by a reporter how NASA is going to deal with the issue of employees feeling free to speak out, O’Keefe said “You have put your finger on a disturbing element that has been brought out of this investigation: a clear assertion by the CAIB – something they have witnessed themselves: a suppression of views, dissent, whatever – specifically as it pertains to safety. The most disturbing aspect in that suppression is that there is a feeling that there is a threat of retaliation.”

“We have to create an atmosphere and promote the opportunity for voices to be heard. I have received emails on this. Some identified themselves, some are not. This speaks the volumes. We must be deliberate and intolerant of those cases where retaliation has occurred. That is not a behavior that can be tolerated or permitted to exist.”

“We have to remind ourselves that we all have a responsibility to step up and do this. We need to create the atmosphere for this and remind people that they have to participate. We have to thoughtfully consider views before we move forward to be certain that we are doing this right. We have to walk the walk in addition to talk the talk.”


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