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NASA officials show the right stuff with candor on Columbia

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2003

In the wake of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew, what have we not heard?

Think. What words, or any variation of them, have failed to pass the lips of any NASA official?

No comment.

We're not going to comment on that.

We won't comment on an ongoing investigation.

I am not authorized to release that information.

It has been impressive during these past painful two days to see the way that NASA officials have treated the public and media, even during their personal suffering and in the hour of their organization's worst possible nightmare.

The agency has been honest, earnest, open, helpful and willing to say what it did and didn't know -- the exact opposite of the modern specialties of "public relations" and "communications."

Corporate executives, elected officials and government bureaucrats, take note.

Not that any of them will.

At mid afternoon Saturday, just six hours after Columbia broke up over Texas, NASA's shuttle program manager and chief flight director sat down for an extraordinary session as the nation and world watched.

Both men were emotional and obviously undergoing one of the worst days of their lives. But they sat there and answered every question as well as they could.

They discussed at length the sequence of events in the minutes before the tragedy, especially concerning the loss of sensor readings.

They talked about the piece of foam that had struck the orbiter's left wing at launch and explained their decision that it was inconsequential.

They explained why there was no way to take a spacewalk during the mission to check for damage and why it wouldn't have mattered if they could have.

Mostly, they looked like professionals who wanted to know what had happened to their friends and co-workers.

"I'm glad," chief flight director James Heflin said, "that I work and live in a country where we have -- when we have a bad day, we go fix it."

Spoken like a NASA man of old: Fix the problem.

Reporters continued to pour into Cape Canaveral and Houston. NASA public-relations specialists were there to meet them and answer questions. Reporters queued up to speak to the particular specialist they wanted, depending on the topic of their question.

The NASA Web site,, featured a prominent banner across the top, linking users directly to the main page of Columbia developments.

There, citizens had access to the latest developments, the agency's statements and background information about the shuttle and its mission.

By Sunday afternoon, more than 30 hours after the tragedy, clearly bodies and spirits were fraying under the strain. Still, there was no big clampdown. Again, shuttle program director Ron Dittemore delivered a masterful and frank discussion of what NASA had learned.

He provided new details of the loss of some sensors on the shuttle and the sharp temperature rises registered by others. He revealed that Columbia's flight control system had been trying to correct for drag on the orbiter's left side to a degree "outside our family of experience."

The reporters, naturally, tried to draw conclusions -- Wheel well breach? Damage from the debris at launch? -- but Dittemore patiently kept undrawing them. He said what any intelligent person knows, but which briefers usually desperately try to avoid admitting: Everything he was saying could prove to be wrong tomorrow.

In short, NASA trusted Americans to have enough sense to hear what it knew and what it didn't.

"Bear with us as we report to you," Dittemore asked.

It is an example of honesty, integrity and respect -- respect for colleagues, for other agencies and for the people -- that ought to be a role model.

It is the best possible legacy for Columbia.

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