WASHINGTON — Members of the presidential commission investigating the space shuttle Challenger disaster said Monday that they will examine testimony of key space agency officials for possible inconsistencies and expressed irritation with the "insensitive" attitude of agency officials who publicly declared last week that they were blameless.
After testifying before the commission, four key National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., called a news conference in which they defended their decision to recommend a launch and tried to diminish the credibility of engineers who had warned of a possible catastrophe at liftoff.
Panel 'Was Not Amused'
"They are totally insensitive," said one obviously exasperated commissioner of the NASA officials' defensive posture. "What they're saying is that they would do it over again, that it's all right and correct because the paper work was in order . . . . The commission was not amused."
The commissioner said that the officials' persistent defense of their decision-making process "points to the root of the problem" at NASA. The commissioner, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name, said that commission staff members will examine testimony to determine "the credibility of the Huntsville witnesses." He refused to elaborate.
When asked if the commission would recommend that some NASA officials be fired, the panel member said: "I'm not sure what the equivalent of firing is in government. Let's just say some changes are indicated."
Another commissioner said that what the panel believes are inconsistencies in last week's testimony may have been "interpretive," rather than factual, akin to "a statement that the sky is blue and another that it is warm outside."
Evidence Called Lacking
But Alton Keel, executive director of the commission, said that there is no evidence to question the credibility of the NASA witnesses. He said staff lawyers are reviewing the testimony to tag specific requests made during the hearings for additional information.
"We have no reason to challenge the veracity of testimony," Keel said. "That is not part of what we're doing in our review."
During the three days of testimony, engineers for the manufacturer of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters said they had recommended that the launching be postponed because of the cold weather but were overruled by superiors.
Space agency managers who participated in the prelaunching discussion testified that the engineers failed to support their arguments against a launching with conclusive data. The managers said that they did not think it necessary to pass along the warnings to space agency executives ultimately responsible for deciding whether to launch.
On Friday, William R. Lucas, director at the Marshall facility, and four colleagues who had testified before the commission told reporters that they believe the decision-making process was sound.
When asked about their comments, Commissioner Joseph F. Sutter said: "I think their statements were premature.
"I wouldn't say that they annoyed me. But I wouldn't say their attitude was the best," he said. "Maybe if I were in their spot, I would be defensive, too. I think they were pretty defensive."
Another commission source said that the NASA officials' news conference backfired by keeping the focus on their agency's decision-making. "It doesn't serve NASA's long-term interest," the source said.
Small working groups of the commission prepared for trips this week to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Marshall in Huntsville and the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Panelists said that their attention will focus on technical problems that may have caused seals on one of the solid rocket boosters to fail and trigger the explosion.
In addition to looking for possible defects in the seals themselves, the commission will examine whether the seals could have been damaged during the assembly of the multi-sectioned boosters and what role, if any, the putty used to insulate the seals from the initial shock wave of ignition played in the disaster.
Hearing Set for Friday
The commission has tentatively scheduled a public hearing Friday at the Kennedy Space Center.
At the conclusion of three days of public testimony last week, William P. Rogers, chairman of the commission, denounced the space agency's decision-making process as "clearly flawed." Two other commissioners said Monday that the panel will return to the problem of the space agency's internal communications before the investigation is completed.