The broader questions

February 04, 2003

AFTER FOUR decades in charge of some of the nation's greatest triumphs and most catastrophic failures, the folks at NASA have learned a few things about public relations.

One lesson apparently being applied in the Columbia disaster is to quickly come clean. Release all available information about what may have gone wrong as soon as possible. Too many charges of cover-up haunted the space agency after it stonewalled for two weeks in the wake of the shuttle Challenger explosion.

Thus, promised NASA official Michael C. Kostelnik at a press briefing yesterday on the Columbia probe: "This will be probably the most open accident investigation on a magnitude of this scale that people have experienced."

Someone else, though, is going to have to tackle the broader questions that remain after all the accident details are assembled. Was NASA trying to do much with too small a budget? Was its money mismanaged? Does the entire space program need to be redesigned with a replacement for the shuttle?

No one inside the space agency, including the inspector general, is in a position to fairly address such issues.

Early evidence seemed to suggest that Columbia met disaster Saturday upon its re-entry into Earth's atmosphere because some of its protective heat tiles were damaged during the launch two weeks earlier. That damage had been observed when it happened, and was analyzed by NASA engineers. Their conclusion that the damage was not a threat to the spacecraft and crew was shared with top officials, who concurred.

Much more is certain to be learned as investigators from an alphabet soup of government agencies pore over the mounds of debris strewn across two states.

But while Mr. Kostelnik promised reporters they'd be able to "watch this process live play out over the next weeks and months" as the search for the cause of the accident continues, NASA is not much interested in further study by a presidentially appointed commission, such as the one named in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.

Instead, the space agency has appointed an external, independent board to conduct its own investigation into the cause of the tragedy as a parallel to the agency's internal probe.

That's understandable; the political gaming that has characterized the Sept. 11 commission would be enough to put anyone off the idea of a panel named jointly by the president and Congress. Nearly a year and a half after terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the investigative commission has just begun its work.

But no panel that reports to NASA can credibly weigh the larger issues at stake as the nation recharts its course into space. It's up to Congress to review the NASA mission, and it's up to President Bush to make sure the lawmakers get it right.

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