HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Five Marshall Spaceflight Center rocket experts, returning fire from a presidential commission investigating the Challenger disaster, today disputed the panel's conclusion that NASA's decision-making process was "clearly flawed" in the hours before the Jan. 28 launch.
"I can't agree . . . , " said Stanley Reinartz, head of the special projects office at the spaceflight center.
His deputy, Judson Lovingood, said that while NASA will consider "whether we need to make changes in deciding to launch, you've got to remember this is the same process that was used in 24 successful shuttle launches," as well as earlier moon landings, Skylab and other manned flight.
Officials Meet Press
The comments by Reinartz, Lovingood and two other officials meeting with a small group of reporters at the Marshall center came less than 24 hours after the end to this week's testimony before the commission investigating the loss of the Challenger and its seven-member crew. Center Director William Lucas, in a later news conference, indicated that he agreed with his aides in disputing the presidential panel's conclusions.
Summarizing three days of public hearings Thursday, commission Chairman William P. Rogers bluntly rebuked officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for giving the go-ahead for the Challenger liftoff when engineers had expressed deep concerns about the unusually cold pre-launch weather.
NASA's procedures were "clearly flawed," Rogers said. "You eliminate the element of good judgment and common sense," and he added that at some point the process allowed individuals "to vote maybe" when you "should require people to take stands and you should have a record on it."
Responding to Rogers' criticism today, booster program manager Lawrence Mulloy said, "What (Rogers) is describing should be done was exactly what was done. A stand was taken; a rationale for flight was developed. And it was not a 'maybe'; it was a documented 'go,' " Mulloy said of a signed memo from subcontractor Morton Thiokol, builder of the solid rocket boosters, approving launch.
Mulloy had challenged Thiokol's recommendation against launching the Challenger due to cold temperatures the night before the launch.
Mulloy said he made "absolutely" the correct decisions to launch the Challenger given the information available at the time.
Cold temperatures are suspected of causing the seals in the solid rocket booster joints to fail, allowing hot gases to escape and setting off the explosion of the fuel tank strapped to the shuttle orbiter.
Reinartz suggested today that some of the blame should be shouldered by the rocket booster manufacturer.
"Should we have known more from Thiokol or should Thiokol have provided more information--that's another question," he said.
Added Reinartz: "I find it strange that Morton Thiokol was ready to launch on the morning of Jan. 27 when the temperature was 40 degrees and 12 hours later they were not ready to launch below 53 degrees."