- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

NASA's chief has denied a request by the Columbia accident board that he reassign top shuttle program officials now assisting the panel in order to ensure an independent investigation.
Administrator Sean O'Keefe, however, pledged changes so that NASA would work better with the board, and those efforts would be led by professionals from outside the shuttle program management.
The board chairman, retired Adm. Harold Gehman, wrote Mr. O'Keefe suggesting that the NASA employees' ties to the shuttle program might taint the independent investigation. The board was impaneled to find causes behind the shuttle's disintegration over Texas as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, killing the crew of seven astronauts.
"I am convinced that this course of action will be viewed as prejudging the facts before the investigation is complete," Mr. O'Keefe responded in a letter Friday.
"Despite your assurances that no conclusions have been made arising from the facts of the investigation at this time, simply reassigning personnel will not accomplish your stated goal," according to the letter, posted yesterday on the board's Web site.
Adm. Gehman's letter Tuesday said the initial Columbia recovery and response efforts were "behind us and operations are more predictable and manageable."
As a result, the board wanted Mr. O'Keefe to reassign "top-level" shuttle program officials involved in Columbia's last mission "back to their duties and remove them from directly managing or supporting the investigation."
Adm. Gehman said the board believes "it is in the best interest of these key people, NASA and the effective progress of the investigation if they were to be replaced by other knowledgeable people to manage the response and investigation support."
Mr. O'Keefe replied that replacement personnel "could be subjected to the same appearance of conflict in the future, and I will not submit anyone to this treatment."
The agency head acknowledged the need for changes in how NASA supports the board's mission. To that end, Mr. O'Keefe said NASA will assign professionals not connected to shuttle management to work with board reviews of materials, operations and technology.
Some members of Congress have expressed misgivings about a lack of independence of the investigation board and have urged President Bush to appoint a commission, following the pattern set by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the Challenger explosion in 1986.
In response, NASA several times has changed the rules by which the board operates. Among those changes, Mr. O'Keefe removed any deadlines for the board's report and instructed the board to publicly release its findings. Under earlier rules, the board was to have provided its final report directly to NASA within 60 days.

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