WASHINGTON - A group of House Democrats called on President Bush yesterday to broaden NASA's inquiry into the loss of the Columbia space shuttle, voicing concerns that the agency's external investigative board is not independent enough to conduct the probe.
In a letter to Bush, Democrats on the House Science Committee, the panel leading the congressional investigation of the Columbia accident, said the Accident Investigation Board should have a charter, a staff and members that are separate from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to avoid the appearance of a biased inquiry.
"While we commend the openness with which NASA has shared information on the Columbia accident with the public and the Congress, we are concerned that the AIB has the appearance of a non-independent board controlled by NASA," the letter states.
The group said the investigation should include outside experts - such as scientists, industry representatives, academics and former astronauts - and be staffed by outsiders instead of NASA employees. It should report to Bush and Congress, the Democrats said, instead of the agency's chief.
"Right now, the so-called external panel is appointed by NASA, staffed by NASA, and reports back to NASA," Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, the senior Democrat on the Science Committee's space subcommittee, said last night. "Even if they do the best job in the world, there's simply going to be a credibility problem."
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said at a briefing yesterday that he is working to make the investigation more independent, altering its charter to make clear that the board is fully in control of the probe.
"We really want to be sure that there is no ambiguity whatsoever, and that we are not eliminating any set of possibilities of what could have contributed to this accident," O'Keefe said. The board, which he said will consider adding members to bring in more outsiders, "will reach conclusions, and the conclusions will come from them and only them."
O'Keefe created the board, and an internal investigative panel, on Saturday, the day of the disaster. He named retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. as chairman and chose seven others, mostly military and government officials, to conduct the probe. According to its charter, the board is to act under NASA's direction, be supported by the agency's staff and experts, and ultimately report to O'Keefe.
Gordon and other Democrats are recommending that the board instead be modeled after the one President Ronald Reagan established in 1986 after the Challenger explosion. That panel, whose chairman was former Secretary of State William P. Rogers, included ex-astronauts, scientists, engineers from academia and the aerospace industry, and Air Force generals. It did not rely on NASA staff and reported to Reagan and Congress.
Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican, "has the same underlying concerns" about the Columbia investigation as the Democrats, spokeswoman Heidi Tringe said. But "he wants to give the board a chance to work. The chairman thinks we can get what we want without changing the very nature of the commission."