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NASA Panel Charter Rewritten Twice, Fails to Satisfy Gehman

By Eric Pianin

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has rewritten the charter of the commission investigating the space shuttle Columbia disaster twice within a week to mollify congressional critics who say the inquiry needs independence from the space agency.

But the changes, eliminating any reference to NASA overseeing or reviewing the commission’s work or setting a 60-day deadline for the investigators to complete their work, failed to satisfy key members of Congress or retired Adm. Harold Gehman, whom O’Keefe had handpicked to lead the commission.

Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Thursday renewed their calls for the appointment of a presidential commission -- similar to the one that investigated the 1986 Challenger accident -- to supercede the Gehman commission.

“You still have a situation where you have the NASA administrator appointing the so-called independent review, and it’s still virtually NASA staff (doing the work) ... which still doesn’t pass the smell test of independence,” Gordon said.

Dorgan said that while “I have great respect for the members of the group Mr. O’Keefe put together, I think it should be a presidential commission reporting back to the president and the Congress. ... You don’t want people later questioning whether there was independence.”

The flurry of activity followed a four-hour joint congressional hearing on Wednesday in which lawmakers lectured O’Keefe repeatedly on the need to fully insulate the board from NASA officials’ influence.

In a bid to further shore up the credibility of the investigation, O’Keefe intends to announce a third round of commission charter changes as early as Friday and has agreed to expand the nine-member panel to include non-NASA scientists and academics.

“There could very well be more modifications,” said Glenn Mahone, NASA’s assistant administrator for public affairs. “If Admiral Gehman wants to make additional changes or recommendations to assure the independence of the commission, he can certainly do that.”

The 1986 Challenger disaster was investigated by a commission appointed by President Reagan and headed by former secretary of state William Rogers. That panel included numerous non-NASA scientists and industry experts. By contrast, the Gehman board was established by NASA the day of the Feb. 1 shuttle accident that killed the seven member crew, and it is dominated by military, Federal Aviation Administration and NASA officials.

Gehman completed more than 35 years of active Navy duty and capped his career as commander in chief of the U.S. Joint Forces Command. Others on the commission include Air Force Maj. Gen. John Barry; Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hess, Air Force chief of safety; Rear Adm. Stephen Turcotte, commander of the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va.; Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal; Steven Wallace, director of the FAA office of accident investigation; and Scott Hubbard, director of the NASA Ames Research Center.

James N. Hallock ’63, an aviation safety expert, and Roger Tetrault, the retired chairman of McDermott International Inc., are the only civilian board members.

A week ago, O’Keefe made several changes in the board’s rules, including the use of independent laboratories and outside experts to review major technical work.

But those changes did little to dampen criticism from Gordon and other Democrats who are concerned that NASA is supplying the commission’s support personnel and that the final report would go to O’Keefe. After initially backing the original charter, Republicans joined in the call for changes. On Wednesday night, O’Keefe made wholesale changes -- removing any reference to NASA oversight and dropping the 60-day deadline. He left it up to Gehman to decide how and when to release the panel’s final report. And he said that he would automatically approve the addition of new members recommended by Gehman and Congress.