Tenacious Challenger Commission Likely to Set New Standard

By Kathy Sawyer and Boyce Rensberger
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 10, 1986

On an early spring day, an FBI agent on loan to the presidential commission investigating the Challenger accident sat in an office in Brigham City, Utah, leafing through documents concerning the space shuttle's solid-rocket boosters, conducting what he believed to be a routine mopping-up operation.

It seemed unlikely that yet another "smoking gun" could turn up, after more than two months of digging.

But among the papers at booster manufacturer Morton Thiokol Inc. were copies of documents that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had not provided the commission, despite repeated requests for "everything." The papers showed that last July, six months before the Challenger catastrophe, a NASA official had decided that the booster's O-ring joints were not safe enough for the shuttle to continue flying and imposed a "launch constraint," but that he had then repeatedly overridden his decision, allowing launches to continue.

The agent's 11th-hour discovery, at the end of eight years of ignored warnings and "red flags" about inadequate hardware, prompted the angered commission to schedule a last closed hearing with Marshall Space Flight Center officials responsible for the boosters.

As the hearing convened on May 9, executive director Alton G. Keel recalled last week, panel members still hoped that the Marshall witnesses would "come back and tell us it's not true; tell us we're wrong; tell us we've misread this."

But the testimony confirmed the fears. "It was clear the whole story was there," Keel said, and the commission went public with the latest discovery, releasing the hearing transcript to the news media.

The episode helps illustrate why the commission is likely to be remembered as a model. It cracked the case, will deliver its report on time and achieved this with possibly less secrecy than any predecessor. With its relentless digging, it silenced early critics who thought it would be too sympathetic to NASA.

Chairman William P. Rogers, when asked about the commission's work, has said he was motivated in part by a desire to avoid the controversy and loose ends left by the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

And the episode shows above all the continuing struggle between the commission and NASA engineers at Marshall, which reflected the commission's growing disillusion with an agency once considered a paragon.

The report of the Rogers Commission, as it has become known, will be released Monday. Because of the panel's openness, it is expected to contain no new shocks.

But when the commission began work, members doubted they would solve the riddle of the Challenger, which disintegrated Jan. 28, killing its crew of seven. In the end, commission members had amazed themselves by finding answers and were even more amazed, and anguished, by what they were.

"We established without any doubt what happened," Rogers said in an interview last week.

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company