The widow of the shuttle Challenger's pilot, Michael J. Smith, said yesterday that the report of the Rogers commission on the January tragedy "reflects incredibly terrible judgments" and "shockingly sparse concern for human life" by space agency officials.
The statement by Jane Jarrell Smith was the first extensive public reaction to the report from any of the families of the seven crew members killed when the shuttle exploded Jan. 28 just over a minute after launch.
The report, based on a four-month investigation by the presidential commission headed by William P. Rogers, "appeared to be thorough and accurate," Smith said in a statement she read during a telephone interview. "We appreciate the excellent work done by Chairman Rogers, members of the commission and the commission staff."
"The report reflects incredibly terrible judgments, shockingly sparse concern for human life, instances of officials lacking the courage to exercise the responsibilities of their high office and some very bewildering thought processes," she said.
The report, released June 9, concluded that the accident was caused by the failure of a joint in the shuttle's solid rocket booster -- a joint that was poorly designed and had inspired a series of warnings over the past eight years that officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the contractor, Morton Thiokol Inc., failed to heed.
"We regret the tendency for all this to cast a shadow over all the many other fine and wonderful people in the space program," Smith said. "We hope that from this tragedy we have learned above all to hold allegiance to the sacredness of human life, to have the courage to place safety first, and to honor those who have the strength to honor truth."
In the final phrases, she said she was referring especially to the "courageous" actions of Morton Thiokol engineers Allan J. McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, who in a launch-eve conference warned against the liftoff of Challenger because of the possible effects of record cold temperatures at the launch site on the troublesome booster joint.
The commission broadened its investigation, largely as a result of the testimony of the two engineers, beyond the hardware failure to examine what it called NASA's "flawed" management processes.
Smith declined comment on officials whose decisions led to the disaster. "I don't want to blame anybody at this point," she said.
The commission's recommendations, which the president has ordered NASA to implement, include redesign of the rocket joint under the supervision of an outside panel of experts, sweeping changes in NASA's shuttle management structure, enhanced safety programs, consideration of improved crew-escape systems for the shuttle and reduced launch-schedule pressures.
Smith said she felt especially strongly that astronauts, "who have flown and who are knowledgeable," should have more say in flight decisions -- also one of the commission's recommendations. The astronauts are "very wise. They're for doing it right and doing it safely."
Her husband, who earned his solo pilot's license the day he turned 16, was a fighter pilot in Vietnam before joining the astronaut corps in 1980.
Jane and Michael Smith met on a beach outing when he was a high school sophomore in Beaufort, N.C. and she was on vacation from her home in Charlotte. They married in 1967, following his graduation from the U.S Naval Academy, and had three children: Scott, now 17, and two daughters, Alison, 14, and Erin, 8. One of the daughters cried out as she watched the shuttle debris fall into the sea, "Daddy! I want you, Daddy! You always promised nothing would happen."