The accident of Space Shuttle Challenger, mission 51-L, interrupting for a time one of the most productive engineering, scientific and exploratory programs in history, evoked a wide range of deeply felt public responses. There was grief and sadness for the loss of seven brave members of the crew; firm national resolve that those men and women be forever enshrined in the annals of American heroes, and a determination, based on that resolve and in their memory, to strengthen the Space Shuttle program so that this tragic event will become a milestone on the way to achieving the full potential that space offers to mankind.
The President, who was moved and troubled by this accident in a very personal way, appointed an independent Commission made up of persons not connected with the mission to investigate it. The mandate of the Commission was to:
1. Review the circumstances surrounding the accident to establish the probable cause or causes of the accident; and
2. Develop recommendations for corrective or other action based upon the Commission's findings and determinations.
Immediately after being appointed, the Commission moved forward with its investigation and, with the full support of the White House, held public hearings dealing with the facts leading up to the accident. In a closed society other options are available; in an open society-unless classified matters are involved-other options are not, either as matter of law or as a practical matter.
In this case a vigorous investigation and full disclosure of the facts were necessary. The way to deal with a failure of this magnitude is to disclose all the facts fully and openly; to take immediate steps to correct mistakes that led to the failure; and to continue the program with renewed confidence and determination.
The Commission construed its mandate somewhat broadly to include recommendations on safety matters not necessarily involved in this accident but which require attention to make future flights safer. Careful attention was given to concerns expressed by astronauts because the Space Shuttle program will only succeed if the highly qualified men and women who fly the Shuttle have confidence in the system.
However, the Commission did not construe its mandate to require a detailed investigation of all aspects of the Space Shuttle program; to review budgetary matters; or to interfere with or supersede Congress in any way in the performance of its duties. Rather, the Commission focused its attention on the safety aspects of future flights based on the lessons learned from the investigation with the objective being to return to safe flight.
Congress recognized the desirability, in the first instance, of having a single investigation of this national tragedy. It very responsibly agreed to await the Commission's findings before deciding what further action might be necessary to carry out its responsibilities.
For the first several days after the accident- possibly because of the trauma resulting from the accident-NASA appeared to be withholding information about the accident from the public. After the Commission began its work, and at its suggestion, NASA began releasing a great deal of information that helped to reassure the public that all aspects of the accident were being investigated and that the full story was being told in an orderly and thorough manner.
Following the suggestion of the Commission, NASA established several teams of persons not involved in the mission 51-L launch process to support the Commission and its panels. These NASA teams have cooperated with the Commission in every aspect of its work. The result has been a comprehensive and complete investigation.
The Commission believes that its investigation and report have been responsive to the request of the President and hopes that they will serve the best interests of the nation in restoring the United States space program to its preeminent position in the world.