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JIM LEHRER: Good evening. The Rogers Commission report on the space shuttle led the news this Monday. The commission faulted a rocket seal and NASA's attitude toward safety. Also, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the administration's so-called Baby Doe rules, and on Wall Street the Dow Jones average fell nearly 46 points. We will have the details in our news summary in a moment. Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in New York tonight. Charlayne?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: After today's news summary, we devote the entire News Hour to thespace shuttle report. We begin with an extended look at William Rogers' news conference and the commission report. Then on to a newsmaker interview with one of the commission's most outspoken members: Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. And finally, in a debate about the impact of the report on NASA and its future, we hear from two former astronauts, a former NASA official, and a member of Congress. News Summary
LEHRER: The presidential commission returned its verdict today on the Challenger space shuttle disaster. It found responsible a rubber seal on a booster rocket that was faulty, and an attitude of NASA towards safety that was equally faulty. Commission chairman William Rogers delivered the report to President Reagain in the oval office at the White House. The two then spoke to commission staff members in the rose garden.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: In America we learn from our setbacks as well as our successes. And although the lessons of failure are hard, they are often the most important on the road to progress. We've learned in these past few months that we're frail and fallible. But we have also learned that we have the courage to face our faults and the strength to correct our errors. Because we don't hide our mistakes, we're not condemned to repeat them. We've suffered a tragedy and a setback but we'll forge ahead, wiser this time, and undaunted -- as undaunted as the spirit of the Challenger and her seven heroes.
WILLIAM ROGERS, chairman, shuttle commission: When we accepted this responsibility, we knew the importance of the task. However, we did not anticipate the difficulty of certain aspects of the investigation. We hope, Mr. President, that our work will serve the best interests of the nation in restoring the space program of the United States to its pre-eminent position in the world.
LEHRER: The commission recommended changes in NASA's management structure, particularly in its rocket propulsion program, headquartered at Huntsville, Alabama. The commission said it was isolated from the rest of NASA, and that isolation should be ended by changing personnel, organization and indoctrination. NASA administrator James Fletcher said he would consider all of the commission's recommendations with an open mind and would make the changes necessary to move NASA forward again. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: On Capitol Hill today, reaction to the report was generally favorable, but some congressmen felt there may be still questions that need to be pursued.
Rep. BILL NELSON (D) Florida: I think the report was thorough enough that there will be very little that will be added to by the Congress, but it is the appropriate oversight role for the Congress to get into it to see if there's anything that has slipped through the cracks.
Sen. JOHN GLENN (D) Ohio: I think of back in the days when I was in the space program and the emphasis that was put on safety in those days, and I think that can do attitude towards safety, perhaps at least in the minds of some NASA officials, has gone to a -- from can do to can't fail. And I think that's regrettable.
Sen. DONALD RIEGLE (D) Michigan: I think that we need some kind of a special governmental unit through the remainder of this year at least that would include key members of the Congress, key members of the executive branch, to work together to see how we actually implement these recommendations ane see to it that we get the space program back on track just as quickly as we can.
HUNTER-GAULT: Tomorrow Congress begins its own official reading of the report when two separate committees begin hearings.
LEHRER: The Supreme Court today threw out the Reagan administration's so-called Baby Doe regulations. The court said in a five to three vote the federal government had no role to play in the treatment of babies with severe birth defects. The administration maintained a 1973 law on discriminating against handicapped persons could be applied to administering medical care to newly born infants who were gravely ill or severely deformed. The decision grew out of a case in Bloomington, Indiana. The administrator of the hospital there and the lawyer who protected Baby Doe's rights while he was a deputy prosecutor agreed today the court's ruling would be a relief to hospitals.
LARRY BRODEUR, former deputy prosecutor: I think the hospitals will feel a little more secure if they agree with the parents not to treat handicapped individuals, where if the regulations were enforced, I think the hospitals would have stepped in and said, "We're not going to do this. We are not going to withhold treatment from this child."
ROLAND KOHR, Bloomington Hospital: I don't believe that a federal regulation or someone in Washington should be making decisions that are based upon highly complex circumstances -- ones in which so many different factors apply. There's no simple, black and white answer to most bioethical questions.
LEHRER: The stock market posted its biggest one day drop in history today. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell almost 46 points to close at 1840.15. Analysts said it was caused mostly by institutional investors cashing in by selling stocks that had risen in value in recent weeks.
HUNTER-GAULT: The troubled South African Crossroads squatter camp continued under siege today, as thousands of blacks clashed with each other at the site. Hundreds of shacks were reported to have been set on fire. Capetown police confirmed at least five dead, with the death toll expected to rise. Many others were reported wounded. We have a report from Michael Buerk of the BBC.
MICHAEL BUERK [voice-over]: It needed only a spark for the war in Crossroads to blaze again. That came this morning, and at one time 11,000 men were said to be fighting in and around the huge shanty city. These are the Comrades -- radical opponents of the government. At the other end of the street, the conservative Fathers -- both with guns. It's a continuing brutal struggle for power, visible on a sweeping scale here, les obvious but still there, in most other black South African townships.
Man: Kill all those people there. We have no bullets. We have guns, but we have no bullets.
BUERK [voice-over]: The police sealed off the whole area and raced about shooting, but they didn't stop the destruction of this clinic and refugee center. Two and a half thousand people had been sheltering here before the Fathers came -- came, nurses said, in the armored police vehicles.
Woman: These people who have caused that, they were coming out of the police vehicles. We were looking at them -- straight at them.
BUERK [voice-over]: The violence in Crossroads today is symptomatic of rising tension throughout the country as the symbolic date of June 16, tenth anniversary of the Soweto uprising, draws near.
HUNTER-GAULT: Israel today recalled its ambassador from Vienna for indefinite consultations in protest over the election of Kurt Waldheim as Austria's president. At the same time, Israel vowed to continue its investigation into Waldheim's alleged involvement in Nazi war crimes during his military service as an intelligence officer in the German army. The ambassador, Michael Elitzur, is due to retire in August, and Israeli officials were quoted today as saying he might be replaced by a charge'de'affairs to avoid having an ambassador present credentials to a suspected Nazi.
After his victory, Waldheim once again denied the charges against him. Peter Gould of the BBC reports.
PETER GOULD [voice-over]: Dr. Waldheim said his convincing victory at the polls had demonstrated that he had the backing of the Austrian people.
[on camera] But do you think now that questions about your past will be forgotten?
KURT WALDHEIM, president-elect, Austria: Well, there is nothing to forget, because there is no -- there is nothing in my past which would justify anything of the kind which some people abroad try to pick up artificially. There is nothing to hide.
LEHRER: Back in Washington, President Reagan spent some time on the Middle East today, as well as the shuttle commission report. He met in the oval office for an hour with King Hussein ofJordan. Neither spoke to reporters about their talk, before or afterwards. White House aides said it was a private discussion. Hussein was in the United States for the prep school graduation of two daughters and for a medical checkup.
Later in the day, Mr. Reagan turned his attention to the contras fighting the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. He said in a Washington speech, "Nicaragua will become a second Libya if Congress turns down a $100 million contra aid package. The White House today also confirmed reports the Soviets directly supplied military assistance to Nicaragua. White House spokesman Larry Speaks said U.S. intelligence had traced a cargo ship that sailed directly from a Soviet military port to Nicaragua. The ship arrived last month. Speaks did not identify its cargo, but said it was presumed to carry military supplies.
HUNTER-GAULT: Cathy Evelyn Smith, a former back up rock singer, will plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and three lesser charges in the drug overdose death of comedian John Belushi. Prosecutors said Ms. Smith would enter the pleas on Wednesday at a scheduled court appearance in Los Angeles. Belushi was found dead in March, 1982, from an overdose of heroin and cocaine.
Still ahead on the News Hour, an extended review of the commission report on the space shuttle tragedy. Then a newsmaker interview with one of the commission's most outspoken members -- Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. And finally, we hear what this all means for NASA's future in a debate with two former astronauts, a former NASA official, and a member of Congress. Report on Disaster
LEHRER: It was a bad seal on a rocket booster that caused the space shuttle Challenger to explode January 28. It was a bad management attitude toward safety that failed to find and act on that bad seal. Thus spoke today the presidential commission on the shuttle tragedy. Correspondent Elizabeth Brackett has this full report on the commission and its findings.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT [voice-over]: The President has asked the commission he appointed 120 days ago to find the cause of the Challenger disaster. And today the commission said they had done that. In clear, concise language, the report states, "The cause of the Challenger accident was the failure of the pressure seal, due to a faulty design."
Mr. ROGERS: We know precisely how this accident occurred. And I think that -- I certainly hope that there will be no nagging questions that remain about it. Every agency that worked with us on this report and all of the people on the commission came to the same conclusion -- that the -- this tragic accident was the result of the failure of that joint on the right aft booster rocket.
BRACKETT [voice-over]: The commission found that the seals on the right rocket began to fail one half second after lift off. One minute into the launch, a plume of flame emerged from the damaged joint. The plume hit the external fuel tank, and the Challenger was destroyed. NASA photos show the crew compartment falling free of the massive fireball, but the report gave no details on how long the astronauts may have survived.
Mr. ROGERS: As you probably know if you followed the investigation, we did not ask questions about that. We thought that that did not really relate to our mandate. We realize there was a lot of public interest in it, but we did not think that was appropriate for us to develop.
BRACKETT [voice-over]: After deciding that the failure of the seal had caused the accident, the commission then asked why the seal had failed. Their finding: neither NASA or Morton-Thiokol, the contractor, ever fully understood or fully tested the joint sealing action. As a result, the first of the commission's nine recommendations called for a change in the joint and seal design, thorough testing of the new joint, and a review of the new design by an outside panel of scientists from the National Research Council. But the commission found that the cause of the disaster was not only faulty technology. It was also a faulty decision making process. Engineers at Morton-Thiokol told commissioners in hearings that they had not wanted the Challenger to launch, because of their fear that cold weather would cause the seals to fail.
ALLAN MacDONALD, Morton-Thiokol: The bottom line was that the engineering people would not recommend a launch below 53 degrees Fahrenheit.
BRACKETT [voice-over]: But that recommendation never made its way to the top. Instead, the finding of the commission was Thiokol management reversed its position at the urging of NASA managers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in order to accommodate a major customer. That finding led to several recommendations. One, reorganize and centralize the shuttle management. Involve astronauts in more management decisions. Chairman Rogers said it was not the purpose of the commission to directly blame anyone for the disaster.
Mr. ROGERS: So I don't think that anything is to be -- anything is to be gained by trying to assess who's to blame. We know what happened. We know it was a tragic event. And now that the report is out and everybody has a chance to look at it and study, we hope that NASA can continue on with a program which has been very successful in the past and will be in the future.
BRACKETT [voice-over]: Though the report did not blame individuals for the disaster, it did come down hard on the management at the Marshall Space Flight Center. The report recommended that Marshall improve its communications by changing personnel, changing its organization, or indoctrinating its personnel. The director of the Marshall Space Flight Center has already announced his early retirement, and Chairman Rogers hinted today that more changes will follow.
Mr. ROGERS: I think that NASA's recent decisions have been constructive. I had a little discussion this morning with Jim Fletcher and Admiral Truly. I think they're quite aware of the need for management changes. I think they're quite aware of the need for restructuring some aspects of management. And I have confidence they'll do that.
BRACKETT [voice-over]: The commission blamed the faulty decision making on another problem: the pressure to launch. As a result, the commission recommended that a flight rate be established that is consistent with NASA resources.
Mr. ROGERS: When you set out with a schedule and you -- whatever it was, 24 launches a year -- and then you try to live up to the schedule, you have self-imposed pressures. When you realize that you're falling behind the schedule -- you can't meet it -- then it becomes very difficult. And we've attempted in our report to point that out. So we would urge NASA not to be too optimistic about their launch schedule -- to do it on a realistic basis. And I think they will.
BRACKETT: There was to be a tenth recommendation in the report, but after objections to the tone and scope of that recommendation by the Nobel laureate on the panel, Dr. Richard Feynman, the recommendation turned into a concluding thought. That concluding thought urges the administration and the nation to continue to support NASA.
HUNTER-GAULT: Late this afternoon NASA had a chance to respond to the commission's report. NASA's new chief, James Fletcher, spoke at a news conference.
JAMES FLETCHER, NASA administrator: We are going to behave like a family which has suffered a tragic event. We are going to deal responsibly with our loss without needless recrimination, and we are going to move forward, facing and conquering the challenges that face us. Where management is weak, we will strengthen it. Where engineering or design or process need improving, we will improve them. Where our internal communications are poor, we will see that they get better.
Questioner: I'm wondering if you could assess for us the morale damage done here at NASA, how much damage control you might have to do and what effect you think it may have on future flights, including getting the launch off that you hope you can get off next summer.
Mr. FLETCHER: Well, I've heard a lot of talk about the morale question, and I would rather call it a motivation and dedication question. We can't really make this shuttle operational, if you like -- or fly again is a better word -- without the motivation and dedication of a large number of NASA workers' and contractors' efforts. All of them have to be rededicated, as I indicated.
Questioner: You said that the shuttle is an R&D vehicle and will remain so for some years. Would you anticipate flying citizens on an R&D vehicle?
Mr. FLETCHER: I think as long as citizens understand the risks that they are taking, and I intend personally to make sure that they do, then I think it is acceptable. They will not be flying on the earlier flights. We want to make sure that it's as safe as we can make it before we recommence that program.
Questioner: Do you think it's a fair conclusion on the part of the American public to conclude that the accident did not have to happen and that ultimately it was NASA management that failed?
Mr. FLETCHER: The fault was not with any single person or group, but was NASA's fault. And I include myself as a member of the NASA team. I don't think we should be assigning blame, but we should be assigning people to fix what went wrong and make sure that it doesn't happen again. And we will do that.
LEHRER: With us now for a newsmaker interview is a key member of the presidential commission. He is Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist from the California Institute of Technology. Welcome, sir. Was this an accident that did not have to happen?
RICHARD FEYNMAN, Rogers Commission: Yes it was. It was an accident that had many, many warnings that there was something wrong and that it might sooner or later go off. And the warnings were disregarded.
LEHRER: Disregarded out of incompetence, out of a faulty system, out of bad judgment, out of -- for what reason?
Dr. FEYNMAN: I had some difficulty with that. I kind of imagine that something like a child that runs in the road and the parent is very upset and says it's very dangerous. And the child comes back and says, "But nothing happened." And he runs out in the road again, several times, and the parent keeps saying it's dangerous, and nothing happens. If the child's view that nothing happened is a clue that there was nothing going to happen, then that's going to be an accident. You could hear brakes squealing a couple of times. That's leakage in the -- gas is going through the rings and so forth, but again and again I saw in looking through the statements "this new flight is within our data base," which just means nothing happened before, it's about the same as we did before, so it can't be unsafe, because it was okay last time. And that is a kind of childish attitude that -- the mother corresponding to the engineers here, the management corresponding to the children. That's the way I look at it, and I don't know what you would say. Sooner or later the child gets run over. Is it an accident? No, it's not an accident.
LEHRER: And yet your commission, and we just heard Chairman Rogers, your chairman, say we should -- we're not here to blame anybody. Why not? Why not -- why is somebody not blamed?
Dr. FEYNMAN: I don't know how to assign blame and whether it does any good. The question is, how do we educate the child? The question is, you can say you blame the child for being a little foolish. But it's very difficult. I tried to figure out why they have this attitude and why they weren't paying attention. I've tried various theories, and I really don't know the ultimate cause.
LEHRER: What's your theory?
Dr. FEYNMAN: Well, one of the -- there's two theories. People -- a lot of people say to me that there's some kind of an idea in management that the incompetence reaches its level, or whatever. But I had another idea, but I don't know whether it's right. And that is that in the beginning, all kinds of exaggerations were made about what this thing can do. It can fly 60 flights, it would only cost so much. It will be recoverable. There will be no real problems. The engineers at the bottom must probably scream -- this is my imagination -- they're screaming up, "No, no, it can't be this way. It can't be this way. We can only go ten flights. We haven't got enough equipment to train that many crews a year," so forth and so on. And the people at the top who are talking to Congress don't want to hear this. So they discourage information from moving up. You see, it was just after they were so successful with Apollo. And in that case, they were doing a project just a little bit harder than they could do -- just a little bit harder, so they could do it. And they would solve one problem -- now, this is my imagination. I'm imagining; I wasn't there. Somebody would say we can -- how are we going to make a space suit? Finally they got a solution to that. They get excited and tell the others -- fellows who are working on some other problem gets a solution to his problem. And there's a lot of intercommunication, because there's excitement and motivation. But when the --
LEHRER: Which is not always necessarily a bad thing, right?
Dr. FEYNMAN: No, not at all. It's what makes it go. And that's why it worked okay with the Apollo. But then when they had this other project, which is so to speak impossible from an engineering point of view -- it's unrealistic. They don't want to hear what happens. It just goes up, and each level in a bureaucracy kind of understands what it's supposed to do. Keep it from the other guys. They don't have to hear it. They don't want to hear it. They don't want to hear it, because it would be uncomfortable to be going and saying we're going to do 60 flights a year when just that morning they were told that it's impossible. That's my theory. Now I, as you know, am a professor of physics, and not of management and human relations, and so it's very likely not right. But you asked me for my theory.
LEHRER: At one of the hearings, in fact I think it was the first public hearing, you took a glass of water and dropped a piece of a rubber seal into a glass of water and made the demonstration that cold weather is not necessarily a good thing for a rubber seal. Have you proven -- has your theory in the glass been proven correct? Do you think that's really what caused the seal to go bad -- it was too cold?
Dr. FEYNMAN: That's one of the -- one of the possibilities -- certainly was one of the possibilities. It's definite that when the temperature is reduced on the seals, the way they were being used in that device -- in the shuttle -- temperature has a very bad effect. What caused a certain amount of trouble is that O-ring seals as used in automobiles and so on are in a position where the space is constant -- the space that they have to -- isn't moved. And therefore, resilience is not vital, and the temperature is not -- it's not sensitive to temperature. So everybody thought seals are not sensitive to temperature. But the way this seal was being used, the spacing between the rings and so on would vibrate as the thing blew up with the pressure and would move, and the ring has to follow that. And when it's cold, it can't follow that. So that's definitely a possible contributor. But as we looked into this thing, we found so many other problems associated with the seal design that there was a kind putty that could have holes blown into it, there was problems about whether -- there were other kinds of difficulties.
LEHRER: I got you. So it could be a combination of things.
Dr. FEYNMAN: So that we couldn't decide exactly what it was, and I won't be able to say that it was solely the temperature, but that certainly was a possibility.
LEHRER: How do you feel about the job your commission did, generally?
Dr. FEYNMAN: I think we did a pretty good job. It turned out to be easier in some respects than we could have imagined. It was easy to find out what happened.
LEHRER: I was curious, why did Chairman Rogers say at the White House today that it turned out to be more difficult than he had thought it was going to be? What was he talking about?
Dr. FEYNMAN: Well, maybe we had different expectations. It's strange, because at the very beginning of this commission meeting, I remember Mr. Rogers saying, "Well, of course, we may never find out what made the accident occur." And that turnedout -- that's what I meant was easy.
LEHRER: I see. You know what happened.
Dr. FEYNMAN: We know what happened. Now, what was difficult, and I think maybe he's referring to this, was the discovery of these weaknesses inside of NASA and their attitudes -- this kind of illogic about safety and so forth, which was so expensive, from an organization which had such a reputation in the country that it was hard for us to find it out in a sort of emotional way as to have to come around and say that the Wizard of Oz which everybody respects has nothing behind it.
LEHRER: The New York Times --
Dr. FEYNMAN: Well, almost nothing.
LEHRER: Almost, okay. The New York Times reported this morning that you had some -- you had a clash with Chairman Rogers over an appendix and other -- and also Elizabeth Brackett in her report referred to that passage. What's that all about?
Dr. FEYNMAN: Well, that's terribly exaggerated. It got into the news somehow. I have no control of the news and no experience with it. At one point, I had written a document which was meant for the other commissioners. I had investigated a number of things, and I was just sending them a note telling what I'd found. And it wasn't written for publication. Then there was a discussion. The various commission members who looked at it said it was pretty good, and we ought to just put it in the report. But it wasn't -- it was written in a personal style. It wasn't proper for the rest of the report. So, since we were going to have appendices, which have a lot of detail, they said let's put it in an appendix, and I'm very happy with that. But because we had this habit of modifying and trying to keep things short by cutting things down that were repetitious, and there were some things in there that were also in the report, we started to modify this. And I looked at it, and I thought it was nice the way I wrote it, you know? So I asked that it be put in -- since it was in the appendix and we weren't so worried about space, let's leave it in the appendix without any modification at all. And they said, "Okay, but look at this sentence isn't written very well." And I agreed, definitely. It was only a suggestion that I change the sentence. And I changed it not because I lost any ideas. I had said the same idea in a half -- or a much more quiet way earlier on in the paragraph, and there was no need to repeat it. It improved the sentence. It's just typographical. I also made another change where I found a sentence had bad grammar. Nobody knows about that one. There's no stink about that one.
LEHRER: So there's no stink here? There's no stink here at all?
Dr. FEYNMAN: No, sir. There's no problem.
LEHRER: So as far as you're concerned, this was a unanimous report from the commission, and you --
Dr. FEYNMAN: Yes sir.
LEHRER: You didn't go away with any scars, and neither did Chairman Rogers.
LEHRER: All right. Dr. Feynman, don't go away. We'll be back. Thank you.
Dr. FEYNMAN: Thank you.
LEHRER: Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: NASA declined our invitation to send a representative to be on our program tonight. Instead, we hear now from a man who was second in command at NASA until 1984. He is Hans Mark, former deputy administrator at NASA, now chancellor of the University of Texas. He joins us tonight from public station KLRU in Austin.
Dr. Mark, what do you think of the commission's conclusions?
HANS MARK, former NASA official: Well, I've had a chance to read the report, and I think I agree with what has been said earlier in this program -- that it's an excellent job. I would take issue with one major recommendation of the report. Safety in any enterprise has to be a very important and deep concern of the people at the top. You can not do it by establishing an organization to take care of safety.
HUNTER-GAULT: That's the recommendation that calls for a special safety panel to --
Mr. MARK: That's -- no, no, it's the recommendation that calls for an associate administrator for safety. If you did that, all the other people who have line responsibility would say that "safety is somebody else's job, and I don't have to worry about it." And I think what needs to be done is to make sure that the very top people in NASA understand how important flight safety is.
HUNTER-GAULT: So you agree with the conclusion that -- the conclusion that the commission reached -- that there was a real problem at the top. There was faulty decision making.
Mr. MARK: I agree there is a problem, yes. I think the problem was one of information flow. I participated in 14 launches of the space shuttle when I was with NASA. And I think somewhere a -- there was a failure in communications, as the report says.
HUNTER-GAULT: You just heard Mr. -- Dr. Feynman say that people at the top just didn't want to hear this -- anything that was uncomfortable. That there was --
Mr. MARK: I don't think that's accurate. I think what happened here is this: that -- and this is another point that the report makes where I think one has to be a little careful -- you can not set up a reporting system on paper that is perfect. What you have to make sure is that the -- there's an information flow from the bottom up, but if you try to make that too comprehensive, then the system gets plugged up in paper. What you have to make sure is that the top people ask the right questions of the people who are working the problems at the engineering level.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, specifically on this --
Mr. MARK: And I think that if I had to pinpoint a problem, I'm not sure that was done. I'm not sure, for instance, that the higher level management asked the right questions of Morton-Thiokol in the weeks before this launch.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, when you were at NASA, were you aware that there was an O ring problem?
Mr. MARK: When I was there, I -- the answer is yes. I was, in fact, in April of 1984 I ordered an action item, which is a document that says do something. I ordered an action item to do a complete review of the O ring seal system, and this was after we had the first indications that there might be something wrong with respect to the -- to the blow by. And very unfortunately, that was shortly before I left NASA. And, as I read in the report, and I have to confess that this is hard for me to live with, it took 15 months to complete that review, where in my judgement that should have been done very much more rapidly.
HUNTER-GAULT: Just very briefly, do you have any reason why it took so long?
Mr. MARK: I was gone by then, so I don't know.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. We'll come back. Thank you, Dr. Mark. Jim?
LEHRER: Next, the opinions of a former astronaut. He is Alan Bean, who flew both Apollo and Skylab missions in the late 60's and early 70's. He also helped trained crews for the space shuttle. He joins us tonight from Houston.
Mr. Bean, does it sound to you like the commission did a fair and responsible job?
ALAN BEAN, former astronaut: Very much so. I'm particularly glad that it was an organization that wasn't NASA that did it, although I have every confidence that NASA would have found the same causes, the same problems. But NASA's way is a kind of a quiet way -- a family way. And I'm very glad that the commission has brought these facts before the public in a much stronger way. Because I think it changes the attitude in NASA about -- it makes everyone ask if it was their problem, not -- much harder, because -- because this other group is saying, "It's your problem." And so it makes each -- it makes even me, who left NASA five years ago, say, "Was there something I could have done?" And so I'm very happy that the commission did its work, and I think it did it real well, too.
LEHRER: You heard what Dr. Feynman said and you heard what Mr. Mark just said -- that he suggested the O ring thing be looked after, and it took 15 months, and it wasn't done. Based on your knowledge of working within NASA on these kinds of things, does that surprise -- what's your reaction to hearing that kind of thing?
Mr. BEAN: Well first, I agree with Hans completely about the fact that there's been a lot of talk about the failure of communications to go from the bottom up. But the reason you pick people to be launch directors and things like that is they're supposed to have a broad understanding so that when things are occurring, they ask the right questions.My question is, you know, why weren't they asking the questions from the top on the way down about the cold weather, about the seal. Certainly they've had briefings. So I agree. I'm not surprised about it, but I do think -- I do agree with Hans Mark that it's kind of a two way street. And people have to ask from the bottom, and they have to be smart enough to ask from the top as a result of other things they've learned.
LEHRER: Does the commission's recommendation that astronauts be more involved in management decisions make sense to you as a former astronaut?
Mr. BEAN: It makes sense to me now. If someone had said that just before the launch in January, I would have said, "Aw, I don't know. Everything's going great. Look at how successful we are. I don't think we need to put any more astronaut input into that launch business, because --" first of all, one of the things I think that reports don't show, NASA is an organization that is trying to solve problems all the time. Most of them have to do with improving what they're doing, making the payloads easier to fly, make them compatible with people operating them. A lot of different things are, you know, occupying your mind. The senior managers are thinking about a lot of things. So when someone comes forward and says to you, "I don't think the seals are working too well," it's not that you've got a bad attitude. You're saying to yourself, "Well look, I'm working on about 25 important issues, and I can't work on all of them at once. Which ones are the most important to work on?" And I think to answer -- to kind of go along with Mr. Feynman's observation, I think what occurs is you say to yourself, "I've got to know which ones of these problems to concentrate on. I better concentrate on the ones that I don't know about. I don't want to work on the seals.I mean, there's no problem there. Why fix something that isn't broken?" So I don't think it's a bad attitude, but I do agree with him it's a wrong attitude. It's an erroneous attitude. Every time we flew in space, I can recall having meetings where we discussed not the seals, but a lot ofother different things. And we'd talk about it, we'd agonize over it -- just as Mr. Feynman said -- over it. And then we'd end up flying it. And then the minute it flew I personally and everybody else would say, "Boy, that's sure a relief. You know, we don't have to worry about that one any more." Because we had lots of other things we were trying to do. So I think they hit the nail on the head as far as saying we had a flawed thinking process. Not a bad one, it was just skewed off or something.
LEHRER: Yeah, well I hear you.Mr. Bean, thank you and don't go away. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: We get another view now from another former astronaut and former member of the U.S. Senate. He's Harrison Schmitt, who walked on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 and four years later was elected senator from New Mexico. Since 1982 he's run his own consulting business in Albuquerque, where he joins us tonight in the studios of public station KNME.
Mr. Schmitt, you've been hearing generally the same things all evening about the commission report. Do you have a different view of it?
HARRISON SCHMITT, former astronaut: I don't think I have a generally different view, except on one very important specific that has not been mentioned, and I think it's the lesson that comes -- that underlies the whole commission report. And that lesson is that when the nation makes a commitment, when an administration and the Congress agree that we are going to achieve a national objective such as the creation of a space shuttle and a routine access to space, that we provide the resources -- the human and financial resources -- necessary to make sure we can accomplish it at the minimum risk; that we have the testing the protocols, that we have the engineering designs, that we have the management team in place that makes it possible to do these things.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what are you saying? How does that enter into this equation?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, that enters because in the early 1970s when the Nixon administration and the Congress were trying to work out what the resources would be that would be applied to the space shuttle program, which, by the way, was what was -- all that was left of NASA's original proposal for a space station at that time. They, in my opinion then and in my opinion now -- and I think now it's supported by the commission -- applied far too few resources to ensure that it could be done at a minimum risk and in fact could be done at all.Our estimate at the time was that it was factor of two to four times under-funded, compared to what a comparable program would have cost in the Apollo era.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right, so how does that affect the two major conclusions: that there was faulty decision making and that there was an O ring problem?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well one, it affected the management system that NASA had to pick in order to live within those constrained budgets. Instead of having the pyramid structure of Apollo, the management decision making was dispersed into the centers. Personnel were cut not only in management but in quality assurance in many respects. A lot more responsibility was given to contractors. The parallel engineering teams that NASA used to have were no longer possible. Things of that nature were done. In addition, the decision had to be made to go with a different kind of launch system -- namely, a solid rocket booster system, instead of the large, reliable base technology liquid propellant systems that we were used to using and are still much more reliable, in my opinion, than the solid rocket systems.
HUNTER-GAULT: So basically what you're saying, that the problem wasn't so much with NASA but with the politicians who made the decisions about the budgets?
Mr. SCHMITT: Yes, I think that's where you come down. It was the kind of decisions that were made in those days of the early 1970s that made it impossible to have the level of resources necessary to do what really was going to be an unbelievably complex technological endeavor -- to take an object the size of a DC-9 or bigger into space, to fly it back, represented challenges that had never before been faced by humankind and was going to take resources, I believe, at a level comparable to the Apollo program, given that we had learned a great deal on how to work in space during Apollo.
HUNTER-GAULT: Have the recommendations that the commission came up with -- do they address that problem, as far as you are concerned?
Mr. SCHMITT: I think their concluding thought does very clearly. And I commend them for that concluding thought -- that the nation -- that they urged the nation to support NASA. And I will interpret support means that when we decide we're going to do something in space, and decide we must -- we have no choice -- that we are also deciding we're going to supply the resources -- human and financial resources -- necessary to see that this is accomplished properly.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, thank you. We'll be back. Jim?
LEHRER: Finally, the views of a U.S. senator who has been in the forefront of urging changes at NASA. He is Senator Albert Gore, Democrat of Tennessee, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee which oversees the space program.
First, Senator, what do you think of the job the commission did?
Sen. ALBERT GORE (D) Tennessee: I think they've done an outstanding job. Indeed, I think this commission will set the standard for all future such groups. They did it themselves, they got deeply involved in their work and really turned out a first rate report. I think the nation should be very grateful to them.
LEHRER: From Your point of view, is it over now? Does Congress now have a job to do, to do it's own investigation, or what?
Sen. GORE: No, it's not over now. It's just beginning. They have pointed the way to a solution for several specific problems which led to the shuttle tragedy. But now the work of Congress begins and the work of the administration begins. NASA management has already begun to implement some of the recommended changes. But some difficult choices lie directly ahead about the future of the shuttle program, the space station program, and what new goals we should set in space.
LEHRER: Are you, as a member of the United States Congress, are you willing to share some of the blame that Harrison Schmitt thinks the Congress deserves in underfunding this program in the first place?
Sen. GORE: Well, I think Jack Schmitt is right about part of that. I think that, as the commission points out, there were very, very serious management problems at NASA, and NASA should have flagged these concerns. They were clear, when you look back at the paper record, this accident should not have happened. But Congress should share in some of the blame in this sense: we were so proud of NASA, and, like the country, we just were so impressed with what NASA had accomplished, that we failed to ask the difficult questions on a sustained basis that really makes up Congressional oversight as it should be conducted.
LEHRER: Is that going to change, Senator?
Sen. GORE: Oh, I think it has already changed, and from now on, although the strong support for NASA will continue undiminished, there will be no more hands off attitude -- no more assumptions that NASA can do no wrong. There will be very tough oversight from here on out.
LEHRER: What does that mean? What does that -- what does hands -- you're not -- if you're going to put the hands on, what does that mean? What's Congress going to do now that it hadn't done in the past?
Sen. GORE: Well, for one thing, I think we will insist upon a separate line item break out of quality control and reliability assurance and the kind of separate unit to assure safety that the commission has recommended.
LEHRER: Now, how could the Congress of the United States insure safety at a particular launch, say?
Sen. GORE: Well, let me give you -- well, we can't do that. Nor should we try to do that. But to give you a specific example, we learned just recently that over the last 15 years NASA has cut its budget for quality control by 71%. We didn't know that at the time it was happening, because we didn't have either the tough questions being asked or the budget data from NASA in a form that would enable us to monitor what they were doing about quality control and safety. We didn't feel the need to ask those questions, because we felt so strongly that NASA had everything under control.
LEHRER: Do you agree with the commission's decision to blame a system rather than individuals for this tragedy?
Sen. GORE: I agree with the commission's decision to put its focus on the longer term and larger issues that are involved here. I believe that NASA management must follow up on this report by looking at what individuals made these atrocious judgments, and if some of them have been given merely lateral transfers, then that's a decision for Dr. Fletcher to look at. And I think accountability in the NASA management structure is something that should be established. But I agree with the commission's choice to not dwell on individual blame but to look at the larger questions.
LEHRER: Let's open that up. Going back first to you, Dr. Feynman. If you were in a position to make one decision about the future of NASA and the way it should operate, based on your four months as a member of this commission, what would it be? What is the most vital thing they need to do tomorrow or the next week or -- to get this thing going again?
Dr. FEYNMAN: Be realistic about what they can do, how much it will cost, etc. If you want to say something 10% or 20% above what's possible to get a little excitement underneath, okay. But to be very careful to be realistic about what they're doing and to be much more interested in the technical reality of the world than they are in the public relations that they have with the country around them and with Congress.
LEHRER: Mr. Mark, do you think, Mr. Mark, do you think there was a failure there -- being too conscious of public relations, too trying to do more than -- just biting off more than you all could chew?
Mr. MARK: Well, I don't think so. We did have in the 1970s a much more ambitious picture of what we thought the space shuttle would be able to do. And in 1981, when I became deputy administrator and Jim Beggs became administrator, almost the first thing we did was to cut back the plans that we had in the 1970s. Now, I felt at the time even that perhaps what we were trying to do was a little bit too much, and I wrote a memorandum which leaked to the press not so long ago where I said as much. But I think the 1981 plan was consistent with what Professor Feynman has just said. It was realistic, given the resources we were given. And I think we can and should execute it, as a matter of fact. I don't think that the flight rate we have in mind today is one that could not be achieved.
LEHRER: Alan Bean, is a dose of realism the answer?
Mr. BEAN: Well, the answer to that is yes. But the problem is, you know, even when you're within NASA on a day to day business working on these projects and you feel like you're right at the point where you ought to know what you can do, you really don't know. NASA is in a business of trying to do new things, trying to do them new ways and better ways. And so you always are reaching for more than you can possibly get. That's the nature of the business.
LEHRER: So how do you -- yeah, excuse me, go ahead.
Mr. BEAN: It's the nature of the business. And so what you do is you say, "I'm going to be realistic, and I'm going to do this amount." But you want your realism to be at the upper end of the -- not the pessimistic end, but certainly optimistic end. And historically, if I've gone back and looked at what we said we were going to do over the years, and we always said we were going to do more than we could do, yet I think that's a necessary ingredient in getting whether we are.Nobody would ever believe we could do the things 25 years ago that we did this 25 years, as Joe Loftus, Johnson Space Center, said recently. And I think that was because we tried to do more. You know, we were going to go to the moon two or three more times than we actually did. We were going to come down in a paraglider in Gemini. We were going to do all these wonderful things that we never could do, but look what we did. So it's very hard to know what you can do. You think you're being realistic and on the optimistic edge of it, but it's only in hindsight that you see what the realistic view was. You can't tell now. None of us can tell.
LEHRER: Dr. Feynman, you're a scientist. How do you respond to that?
Dr. FEYNMAN: Well, it's uncertain. I said that we should have a little bit above the realistic level.Mr. Bean said that -- and we've heard before -- that in the beginning the proposals that were made were very far out from what was realistic. They had to move the levels down several times. And there was, therefore, a certain amount of lack of realism. The result is that Congress is led to expect something, and NASA feels it has to deliver a reasonable approximation to what they were proposing. And that puts a lot of strain on them. I'm getting into things that I don't know very well, and I would listen to these fellows as having better opinions than I do on these matters.
LEHRER: Senator Gore, do you think that Congress could deal with the kind of realism that Dr. Feynman was talking about, if NASA came up and lowered the expectations just a little bit?
Sen. GORE: Well, I think that what's called for is not necessarily a lowering of expectations. We need to set our sights high, but be realistic about what resources are devoted to achieving the bench marks along the way toward whatever goal that we set. What happened here was, in my opinion, after the stunning successes of the Apollo program, NASA wanted a much more ambitious goal to follow. But because of budget constraints and because of other problems, they were not allowed to go for a far-reaching goal, and instead the shuttle became a goal in and of itself. As a goal, it was less than inspiring, particularly compared to the Apollo program.And some of the underlying weaknesses in the structure began to surface when the inspiration level fell and the performance level fell. And management problems contributed to it as well.
LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Harrison Schmitt?
Mr. SCHMITT: Well, I always hate to disagree with my good friend Al Gore. We started this game in Congress together up at Harvard. I would say, however, that Congress has to be realistic about what it can do in terms of oversight. Back in '78 and '79 when I was on and later chaired the same committee Senator Gore -- subcommittee that Senator Gore sits upon, we knew that there were problems in the shuttle program. As a matter of fact, it was obvious to me, and I think to many others, that unless the shuttle program got a big dose of new money, it was never going to launch. The first launch of the Columbia was fiction. And fortunately, in a strange way, the Carter administration finally realized that, thanks to Hans Mark and others, realized that the shuttle was going to be necessary for any future verification of the SALT II treaty, and we suddenly got the administration behind some major supplemental appropriations that enabled the shuttle to actually fly the first time. And we have to realize, there's a limit to what Congress can do if administrations won't come up on the hill and fight for the dollars necessary to do something the nation has said they want to do.
LEHRER: I see. Hans Mark in Austin, does getting another shuttle up by July, 1987, make realistic sense you, sir?
Mr. MARK: I can not comment on that, because I would have to be there and know what the facts are.
LEHRER: Dr. Feynman, do you think --
Dr. FEYNMAN: I have the same difficulty. I don't know anything about how long it should take to do the different things. There are a very large number of problems that have to be solved before that thing should be safe enough to fly, and I don't know how long it will take.
LEHRER: Alan Bean?
Mr. BEAN: Well, I think just off the top of my head it's going to be like the middle of 1988 before we get there. You've got to realize that this list of things that need to be fixed was a list that was invented when our mentality was kind of pre-accident. You know, we had gone through the things and accepted certain risks.I think what's happening now and what will happen over the next months is people are going to sit down and look at that list. They'll agree that all those things should be analyzed again, but they're going to bring up a lot of new ones that everybody agreed were okay, but now they don't think are quite okay, now that they've had their consciousness raised a little bit. Let me make one more point about the money. I don't think the money would have helped us quite as much as it's been stated here, because I think if NASA had more money, it would have spent it on getting another shuttle, better payloads. They never would have spent the money to fix --
LEHRER: We have to go.
Mr. BEAN: -- the seals.
LEHRER: All right. I'm sorry to interrupt Mr. Bean in Houston, but thank you very much. Mr. Mark in Austin, thank you. Mr. Schmitt in Albuquerque, Dr. Feynman and Senator Gore here, thank you all very much. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Next, our cartoonist, Ranan Lurie, takes a look at the space shuttle report.
[Lurie cartoon: a space shuttle, labelled "NASA" stands poised on the globe. A target labelled "New Standards" appears in the sky as the shuttle approaches lift off.]
HUNTER-GAULT: Recapping today's top stories, the Rogers Commission said today the space shuttle tragedy was due to a faulty rocket seal and NASA's faulty attitude toward safety. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the administration's so-called Baby Doe rules. Israel recalled for indefinite consultations its ambassador from Vienna in protest over Kurt Waldheim's election as Austria's president. And violent clashes between opposing black factions have claimed at least five more lives in the South African squatter camp called Crossroads. Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Charlayne. We'll see you tomorrow night. I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour
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This episode's headline: Report on Disaster. The guests include In Washington: RICHARD FEYNMAN, Rogers Commission; Sen. ALBERT GORE, Democrat, Tennessee; In Austin: HANS MARK, Former NASA Official; In Houston: ALAN BEAN, Former Astronaut; In Albuquerque: HARRISON SCHMITT, Former Astronaut; REPORTS FROM NEWSHOUR CORRESPONDENTS: MICHAEL BUERK (BBC), in South Africa; PETER GOULD (BBC), in Austria; ELIZABETH BRACKETT, in Washington. Byline: In New York: CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, Correspondent; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor
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Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” 1986-06-09, NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 26, 2022,
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