NASA opens itself to scrutiny in wake of shuttle tragedy

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is earning kudos for candor in the face of tragedy.

As a probe into the shuttle Columbia disaster begins, NASA is promising a full, open and honest recounting of the facts as soon as investigators find them. The agency's deputy associate administrator for space flight, Michael Kostelnik, has characterized the process as "probably the most open accident investigation of this magnitude and scale that people have experienced in some time."

"We're going to be incredibly open," he told a news conference earlier this week, "so you can see exactly what we're doing and why we're doing it."

Reporters who covered the space shuttle's last colossal failure, the liftoff explosion of Challenger in 1986, might have been tempted to dismiss Kostelnik's words as an empty promise. But so far, they say, they're being inundated with information-and surprisingly so. The agency that reprimanded its own spokesmen for using the words "crew cabin" in 1986 this week is using its television channel to broadcast video footage of shuttle debris strewn across the Texas countryside.

Jim Banke was a cub reporter, writing for the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University student newspaper, in 1986. As the space technology editor for The Avion, he remembers the information blackout at the Kennedy Space Center pressroom in Florida after the Challenger disaster. "All the doors were shut, NASA TV didn't say anything, there were no statements-everybody just stood there. Phones were ringing off their hooks, but no one was saying anything."

Now a senior producer with Space.com, Banke recalls that it was seven hours before a program official confirmed that Challenger had been lost and its seven astronauts had died. He says the press corps spent the next 32 months-until shuttles resumed flying-fighting with NASA's public affairs machine for the simplest bits of information.

As part of its recovery from the 1986 tragedy, NASA developed a plan to put an official from the shuttle program before the press no less than an hour after any future contingency. Public affairs officials smoothed out the plan in launch day simulations. The yearly drills pointed out wrinkles-not the least of which was that when data were impounded behind locked doors to preserve evidence of a mishap, the designated official inadvertently got locked up, too.

NASA did not meet its one-hour target after Columbia disintegrated on re-entry Feb. 1. But within only a few hours Administrator Sean O'Keefe and space flight Associate Administrator William Readdy were briefing the news media in Florida and promising all the available details in a follow-up briefing with Houston-based Shuttle Program Director Ron Dittemore. NASA says it will keep up the twice-daily briefings as long as there is news to impart.

And unlike the situation 17 years ago, when even the temperature at launch time suddenly became a closely guarded secret, NASA is distributing documents seemingly on demand.

For instance, NASA released 15 daily mission evaluation reports detailing engineers' discussions about Columbia's fragile tile insulation on Monday, shortly after NBC news correspondent Jay Barbree reported he had obtained an "internal memo" warning about the hazards posed by flyaway foam insulation from the shuttle's external fuel tank. The foam peeled off during liftoff Jan. 16 and hit the orbiter's left wing, leaving a gouge that engineers estimated to be two inches deep, seven inches wide and 30 inches long. It remained among the leading candidates for a "root cause" of the disaster this week.

"They're providing us with so much information, we don't have time to go chasing down our own theories and conspiracies," Space.com's Banke said with a mix of cynicism and sincerity.

Yet for all its openness, even NASA insiders are having difficulty getting information pertaining to Columbia's demise. Hoarding impounded data and records 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is the sole task of one contingency team.

"Even our engineering teams want access to certain pieces of information that are embargoed," said Dittemore, confessing he thinks the agency "overreacted" when it locked up more information than necessary to ensure nothing was lost.

"We're being conservative-overreacting," Dittemore begged. "Give us latitude. We will share as much as we know."

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