WASHINGTON -- A shocked President Reagan, called from his desk to watch television tape of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, said Tuesday 'there will be no more flights' until the safety of manned space missions is assured.
Within two hours of the fiery explosion that destroyed the shuttle with a crew of seven aboard as it rocketed away from its Kennedy Space Center launching pad, Reagan dispatched Vice President George Bush and Bill Graham, acting director of NASA, to Florida to oversee an investigation of the first in-flight loss of life in the U.S. space program.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Bush and Graham were directed to 'begin an effort to find out the cause of this tragedy.' But Speakes made clear Reagan intended 'to go forward with the space program.'
'We could do no more to honor' the seven-member crew of the shuttle, he quoted Reagan as saying.
A short time after the accident, Reagan told television correspondents in an interview scheduled to discuss the State of the Union speech, 'I'm confident that there will be no flights until they are absolutely as certain as a human being can be that it is safe.'
NASA's next scheduled shuttle launch was to be March 6, a flight to study Halley's Comet. Flights also are scheduled in May, June, July, August and September this year.
Reagan told the network correspondents that watching the replay of the accident was 'a very traumatic experience,' and noted, 'Here was a program that had a 100 percent safety record.'
The United States space program had never had a death in 56 manned missions, although three astronauts died in a 1967 fire during pre-flight preparations for the first Apollo mission.
Speakes later accused reporters of 'leapfrogging well ahead of events' by raising questions about independent investigations, future flights by civilians or a possible shift to the use of unmanned rockets to put satellites into orbit.
'This is a tragedy of major proportion and one that concerns us all,' Speakes said. 'But for the moment, there is no finger-pointing at NASA as far as their safety record.'
Reaction in Congress was similar.
Chairman Don Fuqua, D-Fla., of the House Science and Technology Committee said after a closed session the panel will conduct 'a comprehensive investigation into the cause of the shuttle accident' after NASA completes its probe.
'We're not trying to place blame. We're trying to search for answers. We don't want to jump to conclusions,' Fuqua said.
The committee's ranking Republican, Manuel Lujan of New Mexico, added, 'It would be premature for us on this committee to draw any conclusions' before NASA investigators for NASA did their work.
'We will question the (NASA) review board and anyone else who has information,' said Fuqua.
Both Fuqua and Lujan rejected suggestions voiced by some on Capitol Hill that NASA might have cut corners to save money on the program. 'There is not any reason for NASA to jeopardize safety,' said Fuqua. And Lujan said there had been no cut in NASA's budget this year that might have lead to any corner cutting.
Rep. Harold Volkmer, D-Mo., chairman of the House Science and Technology oversight subcommittee that oversees the space program, said there should be no further flights until after the cause of the explosion is determined.
But Volkmer said there was 'no question in my mind that after we have reviewed the occurrence today with the NASA officials that the space program and the shuttle program will continue.'
Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who returned Jan. 18 from a shuttle trip to space, said he expected it would take some time for NASA to conduct its probe because 'a lot of the evidence is at the bottom of the ocean right now.'
Rep. Mervin Dymally, D-Calif., head of the congressional science and technology caucus, said, 'Inevitably this tragedy today will set the program back because suppliers and contractors are on a very rigid NASA schedule and NASA now has to find $1 billion plus, close to $2 billion, to replace this loss.'
Dymally added that NASA seems to be 'too rigid with their schedule. There needs to be more flexibility. ... I think they put themselves under too much pressure.'