WASHINGTON — The White House was preparing a directive Thursday that will tell the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to comply with the recommendations of the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger accident and call for major changes in space agency management.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that President Reagan might issue the statement as early as today, formally blessing the commission's report and citing it as the guide for NASA's recovery from the devastating shuttle accident.
During congressional hearings launched this week, NASA officials already have said that they found the report to be a road map for the future and saw little fault in the panel's sweeping recommendations. But the presidential statement is expected to add pressure for the space agency to go through with management changes urged by the commission.
Congress Told of Concern
As the President prepared to call for compliance with the recommendations, members of a NASA task force that provided much of the information used by the commission gave Congress a detailed report on their own findings and acknowledged the long history of concern about the performance of the rocket seals that caused the shuttle tragedy.
During the last three years, NASA officials estimated that $3.5 million to $3.7 million had been spent in efforts to resolve design deficiencies in the solid rocket's O-ring assembly.
The decision to delay modifications until the introduction of a new filament-wound booster, being developed for shuttle launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., avoided a two-year delay in the shuttle program but ended with the Challenger accident, officials acknowledged.
NASA's handling of the design problem after the first evidence of seal damage in shuttle flight provoked long, sharp exchanges between space agency officials and Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), who faulted NASA's headquarters organization as much as the agency's much-criticized Marshall Space Flight Center for not dealing with the design problem.
In response, NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher acknowledged that "headquarters was at least as much to blame as other parts of the organization," and shuttle program chief Richard H. Truly said that top management "did not deal with it to the extent that we should."
The Marshall center has taken the brunt of the criticism since the accident because of the role officials in its solid rocket program office played in recommending the ill-fated launch in the face of strong reservations by engineers at Morton Thiokol Inc., the booster's manufacturer. But Scheuer repeatedly insisted Thursday that headquarters officials had been clearly warned of problems with the rocket design.
Not in NASA Posts
Neither Fletcher nor Truly were in NASA management during the period in question.
Although concerns about the rocket seals date back to 1977, Scheuer said that "big fat question marks" had been put to top management after shuttle flights began, and he cited a finding by the presidential commission that by August, 1985, the problem "was sufficiently detailed to require corrective action prior to the next flight."
A series of meetings took place in June, July and August of last year after it was discovered that an O-ring had burned through during a shuttle launch in April. At the August meeting, the commission found, "Thiokol and Marshall program managers briefed NASA headquarters on erosion of the motor pressure seals. The briefing paper concluded that the O-ring seal was a critical matter, but it was safe to fly."
The Marshall and Thiokol officials recommended, however, that the issue be addressed at an accelerated pace.
But the officials also concluded that it was safe to continue flying the design so long as the seals were checked for leaks at 200 pounds of pressure per square inch, they were not contaminated and the joints were fitted within accepted tolerances.
Michael Weeks, a deputy associate administrator who took part in the August meeting, said that three design proposals resulted after the meetings, one of them a feature now expected to be put into the redesigned rocket. The feature is designed to eliminate joint rotation at the moment of ignition, the moment when the pressure seal in the Challenger rocket failed.
Weeks said that his boss, Jesse W. Moore, then chief of the shuttle program, did not attend the meeting. He said he called Moore that evening and briefed him on what had taken place in the session but was still not "quite satisfied."
That evening, Weeks said, he called George B. Hardy, the deputy director of science and engineering at the Marshall center, and "he allayed my fears."
Pressed on Lack of Action
Scheuer pressed Weeks, asking why headquarters officials did not follow up on the recommendation to address the problem on an accelerated basis.
"You had three separate warnings that launches should not take place until the problems were solved," the congressman said.
"In 20-20 hindsight, I totally agree with the commission's statement," Weeks said. "I wish I could relive history and do it."