The tone and manner of the presidential commission investigating the Challenger disaster are drawing sharp criticism from leaders in the engineering community, many of whom say the commission seems more interested in fixing the blame than finding the problem.
"I hate to use the word 'witch hunt,' but it seems to me that they're trying to point a finger and I don't think that's the way to go at this point," said Jerry Grey, a spokesman for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, an industry trade group.
"In my personal view, it's gotten out of control," said James C. Williams, dean of the College of Engineering at Carnegie-Mellon University. "The investigation seems to be drifting in the direction of a witch hunt, and that's not really constructive."
Much of this resentment centers on the commission's style, which the engineers say makes the investigation seem more like a legal inquisition than a serious technical review of the Challenger accident.
"They're running it like a lawyer would run it," said former assistant secretary of defense and former NASA official Robert S. Cooper. "They're looking for a smoking gun."
A spokesman for the commission did not return calls asking for comment.
Several engineers were particularly critical of Commission Chairman William P. Rogers, an attorney, who has publicly characterized NASA decision-making as "flawed."
"Engineering is not an adversarial profession," said Allen R. Stubberud, professor of electrical engineering at the University of California and a former chief scientist of the Air Force. "There aren't two answers -- right and wrong, guilty or innocent -- and I think that's the way lawyers approach things in the courtroom."
Stubberud and other engineers argue that what might work in the courtroom can create serious obstacles in a technical investigation. Trying to fix blame is often counterproductive, the engineers assert, because it may discourage active cooperation with an investigation and encourage biased or slanted presentations of data. They said the first goal of the investigation should be to collect information rather than pass judgment or assign responsibility.
"The first judgments that ought to be made are technical ones, not organizational ones," Stubberud said. "You don't make those until all the facts are in."
Engineers contrast this commission's style with that of more established accident review organizations, which often take months to collect and weigh information before making public comments.
"From the perspective of what engineers are used to, this is very unusual," said Richard E. Kaplan, chairman of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Southern California. "This is not how the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board solve problems."
The dean of the college of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gerald L. Wilson, said that "it's difficult to do an engineering analysis in the spotlight" of publicity. He said public interest and news media involvement are so high that they affect the investigative process.
In many respects, the Rogers Commission resembles the blue ribbon panel that investigated the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979.
"There are many similarities between the two," said John G. Kemeny, the former Dartmouth University president who chaired the highly regarded Three Mile Island panel. " . . . The failure of tremendously complex systems and the fact that there are human failures -- opinions that didn't get through, and the decisions . . . were made under enormous stress.
But Kemeny said there are significant stylistic differences between the Three Mile Island panel and the Challenger commission.
"There is the feeling that the Challenger accident is being tried in the press. Perhaps too many people are making statements."
But Kemeny said the Rogers Commission has "some impressive people and a difficult task."
Part of the difficulty with investigations of this magnitude, said Georgetown science and law professor Milton R. Wessel, is that they often are made to serve political as well as technical goals.
"If you are looking strictly for the answer to a technical question, you would not go about it this way," he said. "There are clearly other concerns here -- such as NASA's decision-making process and the future of the space program." Some of the engineers interviewed agreed that the Rogers Commission is performing as much a cathartic function as an investigative one.
"This investigation is kind of an emotional purge required by the tragedy," said USC's Kaplan. This isn't being governed by technical concerns."