- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

The head of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster exonerated NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe yesterday for any personal responsibility in the Feb. 1 disaster, but he said people should be held accountable.

Retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. said organizational problems within the space agency that contributed to the loss of Columbia and the deaths of seven astronauts existed long before Mr. O’Keefe took over NASA in December 2001.

“It didn’t happen on his watch,” Adm. Gehman told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during the first hearing since the Columbia Accident Investigation Board completed its inquiry into the shuttle disaster.

Adm. Gehman and Mr. O’Keefe acted friendly toward each other, chatting before the lengthy hearing.

Lawmakers were less cordial. Senators expressed concern to Mr. O’Keefe that the space agency is not holding people accountable for questionable decisions made during Columbia’s 16-day mission.

“I’m not trying to embarrass anybody, but I’m trying to fix responsibility,” said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat.

Accident investigators concluded Aug. 26 that Columbia disintegrated after a piece of foam insulation pierced its left wing almost 82 seconds after liftoff, allowing scorching gases to burn through the shuttle during re-entry. But management errors contributed as much to Columbia’s destruction as mechanical problems, investigators wrote in their report.

Adm. Gehman also said it wasn’t the job of investigators to assign blame, but he agreed people in the agency should be held accountable.

“The board does not feel that people should not be held accountable for their actions. The board does believe in accountability … and we believe very strongly that we included in our report fully documented evidence to support accountability if the proper authorities want to hold people accountable. We put it all in the report … it should be fairly easy to sort that out,” he said.

Mr. O’Keefe told lawmakers the space agency has made changes within the shuttle program, assigning 14 or 15 new people to work in the shuttle program since Columbia’s fiery breakup 16 minutes before it was scheduled to land in Florida.

NASA handed out a list after the hearing of people who have left the shuttle program or been reassigned since Columbia broke apart, but Mr. O’Keefe declined to indicate who among them has been replaced because of the shuttle disaster.

There is no need for “public execution,” Mr. O’Keefe said at NASA headquarters.

One of those people removed from the shuttle program has been reassigned to a new safety and engineering office at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Ralph Roe, who was manager of the shuttle program’s vehicle engineering office, has been transferred to the new safety office.

Linda Ham, who served as chairwoman of the mission management team at Johnson Space Center during the Columbia mission, has been reassigned, but still works for the space agency. She rejected three requests from engineers who wanted Defense Department satellites to photograph Columbia to determine the scope of damage to the shuttle’s left wing.

Mr. Hollings criticized the decision to keep both employees in the shuttle program.

“That doesn’t indicate to me that you got it,” said Mr. Hollings, making reference to Mr. O’Keefe’s remarks last week when he received the report that the agency heard the investigators’ message.

Mr. O’Keefe said he hopes to change NASA’s culture and root out the organizational problems that contributed to the Columbia disaster within a year.

Adm. Gehman stressed that NASA needs more money to run the shuttle program.

Investigators concluded in their 248-page report that NASA is an agency trying to do too much with too little money. With inflation taken into account, the budget and the work force of the shuttle program have fallen 40 percent over the past 10 years, investigators concluded.

“The board’s final report … must serve as a wake-up call to NASA and the nation that we have for too long put off hard choices and forced the space program to limp along without adequate guidance or funding,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the committee.

Money has been siphoned from the shuttle program to fund other programs, Adm. Gehman said.

Columbia broke apart on the shuttle program’s 113th mission, becoming the second shuttle to disintegrate. The Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart, killing seven astronauts, in 1986.

Today, the House Science Committee holds its first in a series of hearings on the Columbia disaster.

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