Shuttle Probe Shifted Course Early

By Boyce Rensberger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 1986

Late on a Friday afternoon, just 11 days after President Reagan appointed his commission to investigate the Challenger explosion, the panel encountered its first major crisis, and the course of the investigation suddenly swerved.

The commission had been searching for what it assumed was the unpredictable mechanical malfunction that led to the explosion, the one-in-a-million equipment failure that slipped through NASA's legendary fail-safe designs and multiple backup systems.

Instead they heard from witnesses at a closed hearing on Feb. 14 at Cape Canaveral that as late as the night before the fatal flight, high NASA officials had been warned that the solid rocket booster's O-ring seals might fail in the cold weather that gripped the Cape on launch day, Jan. 28. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched Challenger anyway.

"We knew right then that was a real bombshell," said a source close to the presidential commission. "The commission was shocked. A lot of people were visibly shaken. We found out NASA's process didn't work the way we all thought it would have worked."

The revelation was a major turning point for the commission. The 13 members whom many outsiders initially saw as too closely tied to NASA -- heavy with astronauts, officials of NASA contractors and NASA consultants -- suddenly found themselves united in what one person present that day recalled as "anguishing" doubt about the space agency.

The incident galvanized the commissioners just as their fledgling investigation was moving into a more highly organized phase with hiring of a staff, renting office space and establishment of a sophisticated computer database system to keep track of the flood of testimony and documents.

Most presidential commissions include distinguished members who merely meet periodically to oversee work of a hired staff. This one, under the unusually vigorous leadership of former secretary of state William P. Rogers, saw the commissioners as the chief investigators, most working full time, and often overtime.

The turning point came that Friday afternoon when the commissioners first heard officials of Morton Thiokol Inc., the booster manufacturer, say their engineers had recommended against launch. They then heard top NASA officials declare that the warning had never reached them.

At that point the shocked commissioners sent witnesses out of the hearing room and caucused for 45 minutes.

They realized that the concurrent NASA investigation was in the hands of those who made the decision to launch, including those who disregarded the warnings from Thiokol engineers. The commisioners decided to advise the president and to ask NASA's acting administrator William R. Graham to remove from the investigation all those who had a hand in the launch decision.

But the commission members, acutely aware of the deep public interest in the investigation, felt that was not enough.

"We felt we had to make a statement about what we had found," one commission source said. "We were clearly going to have to broaden the investigation from equipment failures to something a lot more troubling."

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company