In January 1986 I was an Army major serving as the Military Assistant to the Principal Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget on the White House staff. It was a pretty lively environment responsible for budget formulation, execution and policy development and oversight for the Department of Defense (DOD), the State Department and all of the intelligence agencies in the Federal government in the Reagan administration. Our offices were on the second floor of the Old Executive Office Building (EOB) in the White House complex from which we looked down on the West Wing of the White House.
On Tuesday, January 28th, around 11:30am one of our staff poked his head in my office and told me that the Space Shuttle Challenger had just exploded on takeoff from the Cape.
My boss (Alton G. Keel) was holding a meeting in his office, and I just walked in without saying anything and turned on his TV. I got a few quizzical looks from the people in the meeting, but the skeptical looks quickly disappeared when they saw what was on the TV. While DOD contracted with NASA to launch DOD satellites, NASA itself was overseen by another OMB Principal Associate Director, not my boss. For the next few days, we simply grieved with the rest of the nation.
The following Monday, February 3rd, I arrived in my office around 7:30am and had just finished opening the safes when my boss Doctor Keel walked in. It was very unusual for him to be in the office so early and he motioned me to follow him into his office. I remember him asking me “Guess what I promised the President over the weekend?” Then, he proceeded to tell me that the President had asked him to be the Executive Director of a new Presidential Commission on the space shuttle accident and he wanted me to help him set up the commission. White House Cabinet Affairs had worked over the weekend assembling the Commission members and getting them to Washington. My boss said he needed me to help set it up and get it operating. My previous assignment for three years was as an investigator for the Department of the Army Inspector General, so I was more than a little familiar with how a major investigation works.
That afternoon the Commission met for the first time in the Indian Treaty Room in the Old EOB.
I ended up sitting between Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong. It was an amazing bunch of people. The Chairman, Bill Rogers, was a former Secretary of State and Attorney General. Neil was Vice Chairman. Other Commissioners included Dick Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner for physics; Bob Holtz, the founding editor of Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine; Major General Don Kutyna, USAF, Director of Space Systems Command; Sally Ride, first American woman in space; Joe Sutter, VP of the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company and Chuck Yeager. As it turned out, it was the only Commission meeting that Yeager actually showed up for. Just a statement of facts. It certainly did not reflect well on him that he agreed to be on the commission and then did not participate. The next day, NASA arranged transportation for the Commission down to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to be briefed by NASA on the accident.
They met in a very large conference room with a hugely long conference table. I sat in the cheap seats directly behind Chairman Rogers. After some preliminaries, the NASA team showed a video/telemetry from high resolution cameras which clearly showed the plume of flame escaping from one of the solid rocket boosters. A visibly upset Chairman Rogers demanded to know how long NASA had known about the plume of flame. When the answer became clear that they knew about it the day of the launch but had failed to pass the information up the chain of command, Rogers called a halt to the meeting, bolted out of his chair knocking it into my lap and turned and told me to get him to a telephone. We hurried out a door and into a hallway where I ejected the occupant of the first office we came to. Rogers told me to get the President on the line which I did by calling the White House operator and telling her that Rogers needed to speak to the President right now. I handed the phone to Rogers who then motioned me out of the room leaving Rogers and my boss alone. When they came out my boss, Doctor Keel, then explained to me that the mission of the Commission had just changed from overseeing the Challenger investigation to conducting it.
On the plane ride back to Washington, my boss and I sketched out the first version of breaking down the Commission into work groups tasked with particular investigative responsibilities and the skeleton of the staff needed to support them. I was still expecting that I would help get the Commission up and running and then return to my assigned OMB job. When we got back in the office the next day, I was told that I was being dragooned onto the Commission staff to serve as chief of staff. Because I was a just lowly major, I argued, they needed to change the name of the position to Executive Secretary to get away from the military connotation of chief of staff. Thank heavens that recommendation stuck.
One of the first things to be done was to find DC office space. I contacted the GSA who then quickly arranged for me to look at available office space to find a location that was suitable. We lucked out with a vacant office space that was on the second floor of a building that was only a block and a half from the NASA headquarters. GSA also arranged for 24-hour security guard coverage and quickly had it fitted out with office furniture. While I did not necessarily want to do it, I was made the official point of contact for NASA and other government agencies for corresponding with the Commission. It did not take long to figure out that I needed a fulltime person to be that initial point of contact. That turned into a relative massive undertaking that was accomplished by using an existent government contract to set up what became the Commission Information Management System. We contracted with a company that specialized in litigation support with the expertise and trained professional staff, to receive, classify and code into a searchable database all the documents and correspondence the Commission would receive. The amount of engineering documentation alone turned out to be staggering.
Getting qualified staff in place as quickly as possible took a lot of effort. The Commission headquarters staff primarily came from the White House and OMB. The investigative staff came primarily from the Department of Justice and the FBI; US Air Force; DOD Inspector General, two NASA Astronauts and contractor support. It was not a joke to say that some of the Commissioners and its support staff were truly “rocket scientists”. We had some very bright people. To conduct the investigation, the Commission was broken down into four Panels: Accident Analysis; Design, Development and Production of the Shuttle; Pre-Launch Activities and Mission Planning and Operations.
While the Commission startup was happening, NASA and DOD were quietly searching for and retrieving the shuttle wreckage. The most sensitive retrievals were carried out in a way to prevent such a sorrowful and respectful duty being tarnished in any way. I was told, but cannot confirm, that at this stage of the recovery and investigation that more than five thousand people were involved.
The staff worked seven days a week. Most days we were at work until at least 7 p.m. The commissioners worked in their Panels along with their staffs for nearly six months compiling the information for the commission report. Three of the Commission sessions were publicly televised preempting the regularly scheduled afternoon programs. Just finding an available and TV camera suitable auditorium on short notice in DC proved difficult. I can still recall a truly classic conversation I had when one evening I called the home phone number of one of the staff of the Daughters of the American Revolution organization. I had always refrained from identifying myself as “White House staff” but broke that rule when the young woman who answered the phone said to her father “Hey, Dad, the White House is calling.” His response, “Tell them I don’t talk to buildings and hang up.” They ended up letting us use their auditorium.
On June 6,1986 the Commission presented its report to President Reagan in a Rose Garden ceremony. The report contains seven volumes and thousands of pages.
I sat in the audience as the escort to Chairman Rogers’ wife. Principal staff members were given three sets of the report. I donated one set to the West Point library and one set to Army – Navy Club’s library where I was a member. Part of closing down the Commission was having the GSA take possession of all the Commissions files and records. There were literally pallet loads of documents that they shrink-wrapped and used a forklift to move out of the building and into their trucks. One of the GSA people told me that it appeared to be the best organized set of records that they had ever processed.
Probably, one of my favorite memories of the Commission occurred while we were closing it down. One evening the work-a-bee staff decided to get a beer in the bar of the Holiday Inn across the street before heading home. As we were heading out, I noticed that Mr. Armstrong was still in his office. I stuck my head in his office and asked if he would like to join us. His response: “I was hoping you would ask me.” The first man to step on the moon was truly a national treasure.
I followed my OMB and Commission boss, Doctor Keel, to be his Military Assistant when he became the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor. John Poindexter was National Security Advisor and one of my National Security Council (NSC) contemporaries was a Marine major named Oliver North. Then, life got really interesting again.
Remembering the Challenger Astronauts (courtesy New York Post)