Several prominent aerospace experts yesterday questioned why NASA's chief chose to name the members of the panel that will conduct an external investigation of Columbia's fatal accident, saying that its independence and credibility will be open to question.
"Clearly, they've tried to preempt an independent investigation by creating their own," said Jim Burnett, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board during the investigation of the 1986 Challenger disaster. "There's a lot of psychological freight to asking people to investigate their own performances."
Robert B. Hotz, who served on the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, agreed. He said National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Sean O'Keefe made a mistake in choosing the seven members of the Columbia investigative board, six current government employees led by a retired admiral.
"They're not following our experience," Hotz said. President Ronald Reagan "was insistent that [the Challenger investigation] be done independent of the government." He noted that the 13 members of the Challenger commission, headed by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers, included a majority from the private sector and academia.
While rank-and-file NASA engineers assisted the Challenger probe, he said, "the upper level of NASA was sabotaging us all the way through," Hotz said.
But other veterans of the Challenger investigation praised O'Keefe's appointments.
Donald J. Kutyna, a retired four-star general who served on the Challenger accident commission, said that while NASA was defensive in the Challenger investigation, he is confident that O'Keefe wants an open and thorough investigation.
"I have the highest level of confidence in Sean O'Keefe and the NASA leadership. They're going to do it right," Kutyna said.
O'Keefe appointed the Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board yesterday, choosing as its chairman retired Admiral Harold W. Gehman Jr., who led the investigation of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.
"While the NASA family and the entire world mourn the loss of our colleagues, we have a responsibility to quickly move forward with an external assessment to determine exactly what happened and why," O'Keefe said.
O'Keefe also named four military officers and two federal aviation officials to the panel.
A former secretary of the Navy and federal budget official, O'Keefe was named by President Bush in December 2001 as the 10th head of the space agency, which has often been criticized for cost overruns and slack management.
James E. Oberg, an aerospace writer and consultant, noted the lengthy, candid news conferences on the accident conducted Saturday and yesterday by NASA officials and said he doubted O'Keefe would try to control the investigation.
Still, John C. Macidull, a lead investigator in the Challenger inquiry, said it was "absurd" for O'Keefe to name the panel. He said a smarter move would have been for President Bush to put the NTSB, which investigates domestic air and rail accidents, in charge of the probe, removing the taint of conflict of interest.
Burnett said that a defensive mentality among NASA officials could hamper the investigation, as it did in 1986.
"The thirst to know what happened initially outweighs everything else, but it doesn't take many days for people to start circling the wagons," he said.