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NASA Watch Editor Keith Cowing on NEXT@CNN 23 Aug 2003 [Transcript]

Status Report From: CNN
Posted: Saturday, August 23, 2003

image SAN MIGUEL: Well, it was nearly seven months ago that the space shuttle "Columbia" broke apart as it reentered earth's atmosphere, killing the seven astronauts on board. On Tuesday, the "Columbia" accident investigation board plans to issue its final report on the cause of the disaster.

And joining us to talk more about that and what NASA will need to do to return to flight is Keith Cowing. He's with nasawatch.com.

Keith, thanks for being with us today.

KEITH COWING, NASAWATCH.COM: My pleasure.

SAN MIGUEL: You know, we've heard so much over the last few months about the foam strike on the leading edge of the wing and how that contributed to it and how NASA handled that. Are you expecting anything else other than that from this report? Are we expecting any other major surprises?

COWING: Surprises, no. I think the cause is pretty well known, and they've actually demonstrated it to great detail. What will come out is a bit less -- oh, you can't put your arms around it easily, the word "culture" is often used to describe it.

But what will come out in this report is a rather detailed look back at how NASA came to be, where it is today, what it does well, but mostly what it is not doing well, and that is really what the focus of this is going to be on.

SAN MIGUEL: And has that focus changed considerably since the investigation into the "Challenger" accident? I guess what I'm wondering is, has there been -- have there been some changes in how the "Challenger" investigation was done and how this one was done?

COWING: Well, they had -- clearly had the benefit of experience of looking back at what had been done with "Challenger." I think the circumstances are a bit different. This is the 21st century. I mean, we have information bouncing around much faster than it could back then.

But fundamentally, at its core, you had a horrible accident where people were killed in front of everybody's eyes, and you had the engineering figured out pretty quickly. But as was the case with "Challenger" will be with this report, the real problem here is human.

SAN MIGUEL: And you talked about the culture that was involved with those humans working on the shuttle program. You know, NASA's management culture has come under attack for being too rigid, for stifling voices of criticism and dissent. A fair accusation?

COWING: Yes. I mean, I used to work there, and nasawatch.com is kind of like the water cooler for everybody who has an issue to raise that they couldn't do through, you know, legitimate means. But, you know, I think it's a bit unfair to cast this shadow. I mean, culture is sort of a key that all reporters have on their keyboards these days. And when something happens at NASA they don't quite understand, they say, Oh, it's culture.

There's more to it than that. There's a culture within NASA works, there's the contractor community, there's Congress, and then there's the public. So I don't want to cast the blame elsewhere.

But you've got to understand NASA not by itself, but within the context with which, you know, it does all these marvelous things, and scant attention is paid to the fact that all these spacecraft operate perfectly. It's when one thing goes horribly wrong that suddenly we think, Well, the entire agency is messed up. That's not true.

SAN MIGUEL: Well, I mean, I was going to ask for a report card on Sean O'Keefe and the NASA administrator and then the chairman, Admiral Hal Gehman, who is looking into this, what you -- how you think that they've done through all of this.

COWING: I both -- I'd give them both A-minuses thus far.

SAN MIGUEL: OK. And the reason is, they've been up front, but why? But what else, what else is playing into that (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

COWING: Well, up front is important, and I think, you know, they both stood their respective grounds, which needs to be done to a certain extent.

Hal Gehman was pushing for a lot more information than NASA was necessarily wanting to give, and yet NASA was there trying to, I think, protect the -- not the rights, but sort of the respectability and the right to sort of be able to talk without fear of suddenly being thrown up on -- I mean, I'm used to being on TV, but a lot of these NASA folks were afraid to be tossed up in front of television. So O'Keefe kind of jumped in front of that.

So there's a bit of a back and forth on this, but I think out of this mix comes the information that was needed.

SAN MIGUEL: And finally, will -- do you think this report will lead some at NASA to think about other ways to get into space besides the shuttle flight? Will there be a hard look at other alternatives of manned launches?

COWING: Yes, good question. NASA was already working on a concept to replace the shuttle before the accident. And now, of course, the focus is much more on how you would replace the shuttle and how long you'd keep the shuttle flying until such time as the replacement comes in. And by the way, where is the money going to come from?

SAN MIGUEL: All right, there is the question. And we'll have to leave that for another time. Keith Cowing is with nasawatch.com. Thanks for joining us today.

COWING: My pleasure.

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