WASHINGTON — A handful of outspoken congressional Democrats, expressing concern and suspicion about the way President Reagan's special commission is probing the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, are stepping up demands for an independent congressional investigation.
And this criticism, coming on the eve of what may be a crucial set of public commission hearings today and Wednesday, has intensified pressure on the presidential panel to establish its credibility in the eyes of Congress and the public.
So far, only three Democratic senators and a Democratic congressman have issued public demands for a separate congressional investigation, but sources on Capitol Hill say concern there is beginning to spread and they predicted that this week's commission hearings may determine whether it subsides or continues to swell.
Commission members insist their final report and supporting evidence will be thorough, will be made fully public and will ultimately dispel all doubts. They are aware that the stakes are high, however: If the controversy grows and their conclusions become clouded by the kind of uncertainty that plagued the Warren Commission's findings on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the consequences could be damaging for the nation's space program.
Thus the public hearings beginning today to address the question of why the Challenger was sent aloft despite warnings from rocket engineers about dangers posed by unprecedented cold may be pivotal to establishing the commission's credibility.
"The degree of pressure that was involved in the decision to launch is extraordinary and where it came from and why is a mystery at this point," said Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), one of those calling for an independent inquiry.
"One can only assume they (the presidential commission) are hitting upon things that are so disturbing that they feel they can't share them with the public," he said.
The controversy in Congress also alarms some NASA engineers, who worry that the clamor beginning to surround the investigation could allow some serious underlying element of the Challenger tragedy to go undetected.
These NASA engineers note that speculation about the cause of the explosion has raced ahead even before recovery of what may prove to be the only piece of tangible physical evidence--the booster rocket. Salvage crews have located at least one piece of the suspect right-hand rocket under as much as 1,200 feet of water, but whether they will manage to recover it--and whether it has survived sufficiently intact to provide solid evidence--remain in doubt.
And from the day of the accident, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials have stressed the need to distinguish between cause and effect--for instance, whether the visible leak in the rocket was a culprit in the explosion or an effect of some as-yet undetected failure in the complicated shuttle system.
"The senators already are thinking they know what went wrong," said David Winterhalter, the director of NASA's shuttle propulsion program. "Everyone is talking about how to fix it, but I don't know what's wrong yet. We don't even know what happened yet."
Riegle and other congressional critics say they are troubled by the presidential commission's inevitable ties to the White House and by its penchant for private meetings, which has forced members of Congress to rely on news media reports for most of their information.
This frustration reached a peak last week, when several Democratic senators called for the resignation of key NASA officials and challenged Senate Republican leaders to open an independent inquiry.
Called Political Move
Republican and commission sources contend that Capitol Hill critics, most of them Democrats, are trying to exploit the disaster for their political benefit and meddle with the inquiry in a way that would ultimately hamper the commission. They concede, however, that failure to blunt the criticism and allay suspicions about the investigation could damage the commission's credibility.
The path of the investigation turned sharply 10 days ago, when an employee of Morton Thiokol Inc., the firm that builds the solid fuel booster rockets now suspected in the explosion, told the commission in a private session that most of the firm's engineers had opposed the launch for fear that crucial O-ring seals in the rockets' outer shell might fail in cold weather.
The prelaunch discussion ended when Morton Thiokol's management--for reasons not yet known to the public--overruled its own engineers and recommended that the flight proceed the next morning.
When word of that testimony leaked out, what had been an exacting exercise in scientific forensics was transformed into an inquiry into possible human foibles. Commissioners were dispatched to three cities to interview witnesses and reconstruct the several hours of debate between Thiokol engineers and NASA officials during the critical last hours before launch.