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Interview with Sean O'Keefe, Chief Administrator of NASA - 2003-04-25


VOA’s David Borgida is joined by the Chief Administrator of NASA, Sean O’Keefe who discusses the latest developments in the space shuttle Columbia investigation.

MR. BORGIDA
Now joining us, a special guest, as I mentioned earlier, the Administrator of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Sean O'Keefe. Mr. O'Keefe, thanks for joining us. We know it's a busy time for you and we appreciate that you could come by and talk to us.

Let's begin first with I guess the question that has been heard in Washington before, what do we know, when did we know it, and where are we in the investigation? It's winding down this week.

MR. O'KEEFE
Well, the Columbia action investigation board is really working through all the facts and the evidence in order to reach what they think is either a cause or probable cause of what occurred on Columbia on February the 1st. They are still weeks away from coming to a conclusion on that, and they've got more analysis to go. They are anticipating reaching some closure here in the time ahead; sometime this summer is what they have publicly announced. So, we're looking forward in anticipation of those results as soon as they can get them.

MR. BORGIDA
We know some things, don't we, at this point? What do we know?

MR. O'KEEFE
Well, there is at least a moving proposition, the theory, around a break at the leading edge, or along the left wing of the Columbia orbiter, is what permitted the penetrated hot gases to enter the orbiter at that point, and therefore leading to the explosion. But what caused it, what forced that to occur in the first place, is what they're still trying to work their way through.

So, it's still got a little more work to go, and they haven't released any ultimate judgments yet. They haven't even determined what the cause or probable cause is at this juncture. And so we are still awaiting that result.

MR. BORGIDA
Mr. O'Keefe, there has been a fair amount -- perhaps, in your view, more than a fair amount -- of second guessing, criticism, of the process that NASA and its scientists go through during these flights. How do you feel about that? Is it a healthy part of a post-accident investigation like this? Or do you feel that it is inappropriate in any way?

MR. O'KEEFE
No, it's completely appropriate. We're a public agency. We represent the American people in looking through the range of things that could be done to pursue exploration and discovery on their behalf. When it goes wrong -- and this went terribly, tragically wrong -- we are accountable. We positively plan, and have, opened up the entire agency to review and examination. We want to find out what caused this, fix it, and get back to flight as expeditiously and safely as we can.

MR. BORGIDA
To that end, there have been critics who have said that e-mails, for example, alerting scientists of the possible problems were not taken seriously enough. There were other sorts of comments like that aimed directly at NASA and the establishment there. How do you respond to all that?

MR. O'KEEFE
It indicates to me a very spirited exchange, of an open, permissive environment for lots of debate and discussion and dialogue, for engineers at every different level. The Internet has become a very egalitarian process. It doesn't matter where you fit on the organization chart, you can send e-mail back and forth and dialogue. And that's what occurred.

But what is really important about the history there is that as the flight came closer and closer to conclusion and the mission was coming to conclusion, they reached closure about what those open issues were and satisfied themselves that safety of flight considerations had been worked through.

So, everybody was in agreement at the conclusion of this that there was no safety of flight inhibitor for reentry of the orbiter on that day. Now, that's a judgment call. And what we are now into is making judgments about someone else's judgment calls. But the fact is that there was debate that went on during that time. There is ample evidence to suggest that it was there, healthy, and open debate and dialogue.

MR. BORGIDA
Let me ask you also, Mr. O'Keefe, there are others who say that there are culture issues within NASA, scientists versus others, concerns about contracts, bidding and so on, that in a way impact the way critical decisions are made about flights like this that of course involve human life as well as commitment by NASA. How do you respond to those kinds of comments?

MR. O'KEEFE
Well, there is no question there are concerns about the dominant kind of mindset that is operative at the time to make decisions about something as risky as space flight. The fact is no one else does this on a shuttle.

What we are seeing tonight is the launch of our Russian partners, picking up the circumstance here and launching the same way we did under the Apollo days, with Saturn V rockets essentially. They are more upgraded, more modern, more technologically advanced, but, nonetheless, there is no other benchmark than the one that we do. So, any time there is a criticism, or observations on how we could do things better, we take that seriously. And we think we ought to, because it is a very, very risky business, and we always want to get better at it consistently.

MR. BORGIDA
Let's talk a little bit about the future. We've talked about the accident, and I appreciate you discussing it with us. The future of international cooperation, other countries involved, are you encouraged by all this? Has the Columbia accident in any way discouraged others from working with the United States in space flight?

MR. O'KEEFE
Not at all. As a matter of fact, in this tragedy, as horrific as this was, it has demonstrated the very best of the depth of our International Space Station partnership. Our Russian partners have stepped up very, very responsively and very impressively.

Yuri Koptev, the Director General of Rosaviakosmos, has been a leader in pulling together and trying to find, in this interim period while the Shuttle is grounded and until we can return to safe flight, trying to work through, imaginatively, ways to support the International Space Station, continue operations there, make sure it's provisioned and, as we're going to see here in a few hours, an expedition crew that is going to be well provided for and the safety considerations have been factored in that the Russians are very dedicated to.

All of our partners in the International Space Station effort, I think this has demonstrated the depth of the partnership. In tragedy has come I think a renewed resolve of how important this international relationship is and how successful it can be.

MR. BORGIDA
Sean O'Keefe, Administrator of NASA, we're delighted you could join us. Thanks for being here.

MR. O'KEEFE
Thank you, sir. Nice to be with you, David.

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