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Former NASA Budget Analyst Says He Was Pressured To Lie

March 16, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A former NASA budget analyst who warned of problems with the space shuttle’s O-ring seals six months before the Challenger explosion says in a published article that superiors pressured him to lie about the space agency’s follow-up to safety issues he raised.

″I felt I was under official orders to deny publicly the validity of my earlier July 23 memorandum, a denial which of course I could not and did not make,″ Richard C. Cook wrote in an opinion-page article in Sunday’s editions of the Washington Post.

Six months before the Jan. 28 explosion that killed the Challenger’s crew of seven, Cook wrote a memo ″summarizing my concerns about the safety of the solid rocket booster used in the space shuttle.″

As the post-accident probe was getting underway and news media inquiries mounted, ″I was told to say that after I filed my report, the problem was discussed in the comptroller’s office, inquiries were made to the program office, and work was under way that satisfied us that the safety issue was being dealt with,″ he wrote in the newspaper.

Cook, who now works for the Treasury Department, also said NASA’s promotion system tends to ″turn people into yes men″ with a ″decided tendency to report only good news, to paint only a rosy picture.″

Jim McCulla, deputy director of public affairs at NASA headquarters in Washington, said Saturday he found Cook’s comments about being told what to say to reporters incredible.

″I’ve never heard any of that. I can’t imagine that,″ McCulla said. ″NASA has always had since its inception a rule that says that any member of the press can go to anybody (in NASA) and talk to them.″

Since Cook didn’t name the NASA superior who allegedly told him what to say, McCulla said there was no way to know what he meant.

Cook wrote his memo after investigating the possible budgetary impact of the O-ring seal problem. The investigation of the Challenger explosion has highlighted possible failure of the O-rings, which are designed to prevent leaks in the shuttle’s rocket boosters.

In his article, Cook wrote that NASA ″people undersood completely the implications of a possible O-ring failure. It’s just that it was viewed as no problem.″

Cook also said NASA’s field centers ″operated as a quasi-independent fiefdom with little central guidance or control.″

At NASA, in the hours and days following the accident, ″there were many hushed conversations as more information came in to support the solid rocket booster failure hypothesis. There was concern about who might be blamed,″ Cook wrote.

Cook concluded that if NASA had listened to ″a small number of individuals ... who feared that the booster seals were unreliable in cold weather ... the Challenger and its astronauts might still be with us today.″

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