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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 3, 2003

NASA lauded for straightforward reaction

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By Larry Wheeler
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — With the world watching, America's space agency stepped into the spotlight the past two days, leading with its chin, heart and soul.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, left, talked with Tim Russert yesterday via satellite about the tragedy of space shuttle Columbia during a taping of NBC's "Meet the Press."

Associated Press

From President Bush's solemn declaration: "The cause in which they died will continue. ... Our journey into space will go on," to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's heartfelt: "This is, indeed, a tragic day for the NASA family. ... and, likewise, tragic for the nation," the agency confronted the catastrophic loss of seven astronauts and its shuttle Columbia openly and directly.

More than one observer has contrasted the civilian space agency's straightforward reaction this time to the hesitancy and defensiveness apparent after the Challenger explosion shortly after launch on Jan. 28, 1986.

"NASA has handled this remarkably well," said Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society. "They have been open about what they learned in contrast to what happened after Challenger when there were no assurances the shuttle fleet would fly again."

The agency's public performance at such a trying time is probably a combination of lessons learned from the Challenger tragedy and the personalities of the individuals involved, Chase said.

The effect has been tangible.

Within hours of Bush's sobering speech from the White House and O'Keefe's crestfallen appearance on national TV from Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle program's managers were on TV in Houston at the Johnson Space Center, fighting back tears as they attempted to inform the waiting world of the technical aspects of the Columbia's catastrophic descent.

It was emotional, professional and personal.

NASA's elaborate and helpful public relations organization needed to do little else but turn on the cameras and microphones.

Nevertheless, press officers and managers kept busy behind the scenes accommodating the tsunami of media inquiries, reporters clamoring for interviews, TV satellite trucks jockeying for prime parking at NASA centers in Florida and Texas.

By Saturday evening, it was obvious the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had a plan and was rapidly implementing it.

To address public concerns, the agency quickly announced two investigations — one to be conducted by an independent panel, the other in-house.

Yesterday, O'Keefe appeared on every morning network TV public affairs show from NBC's "Meet the Press" to CBS's "Face the Nation."

"We're going to find out what led to this, retrace all the steps that were involved in all the events from the time we lost communication with them ... and leave absolutely no stone unturned in that process," O'Keefe said on ABC's "This Week."

O'Keefe's message was reinforced by a squadron of former astronauts willingly recruited by the networks to give their thoughts on the tragedy and the danger of exploring the inhospitable environment beyond Earth's comfortable atmosphere.

"I don't think Americans want to see us lose all that we have invested in so far," said Buzz Aldrin, the former astronaut who followed Neil Armstrong onto the surface of the moon in 1969. "The dedicated lives of those people who have been invested in furthering this program, I think, deserves a continuation of our best efforts."