WASHINGTON -- The space agency braces today for the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger disaster, ending a painful four-month investigation and clearing the way for sharp congressional scrutiny.
The 250-page report on history's worst space disaster was delivered Saturday to President Reagan and kept under tight security before an afternoon news conference today to formally reveal the panel's findings.
Former Secretary of State William Rogers, chairman of the 13-member commission, has made no secret of his disgust with NASA's 'clearly flawed' decision-making process and the need for changes in a management structure that allowed deep concern about shuttle booster rockets to go unheeded.
And while most NASA engineers believe changes clearly need to be made, some worry the criticism will result in an overly conservative agency unable to meet the goals of the shuttle project.
'Our main fault is we made the impossible look easy,' said one engineer. 'We're getting crucified.'
In a sense, the commission's report signals the end of one phase of the investigation and the beginning of another.
Rogers and top NASA managers now face a week of hearings beginning Tuesday before the House and Senate on the implications of the report, how it was generated and what NASA plans to do about it. The result promises to reshape the nation's space policy and how the shuttle program is utilized.
Several members of Congress have made it clear that the commission's finding linking NASA management to the disaster will result in tighter congressional control of the space agency.
The report traces the cause of the Jan. 28 Challenger disaster to a rupture in the shuttle's right-side booster rocket and shows how NASA engineers glossed over deep concern about problems with the rockets' fuel-segment joints in a bid to meet an overly ambitious launch schedule with limited resources.
The commission has recommended independent review boards to oversee the redesign of the booster joints, called for more participation by astronauts in the decision to launch shuttles and improved quality control and safety.
Many of the panel's recommendations already are being implemented by NASA in anticipation of the report to improve communications and to ensure key safety issues receive the attention they deserve.
While the report makes a clear case tracing NASA management errors to the disaster, one panel source said the report did not assign blame or responsibility to individuals but laid out all the evidence showing what happened and why.
Space agency agency officials expected harsh treatment from the commission but panel sources said criticism of NASA was toned down considerably in the final document, despite reported objections by commission member Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was sharply critical of the agency.
The families of the seven astronauts were briefed on the commission's findings by Rogers last Wednesday in Washington but June Scobee, wife of shuttle commander Francis 'Dick' Scobee, said in an interview she was reserving judgment until she has reviewed the entire report.
'I just don't know how I'll feel about it until I've read it,' she said.
A commission source said a key turning point in the investigation came Feb. 10 when the panel learned that engineers with booster maker Morton Thiokol Inc. unanimously opposed Challenger's launch because of the possible adverse effect of cold weather on rubber O-ring seals in the rockets.
But the engineers were overruled by company managers under pressure from NASA. The source said it was only then the commission realized the agency's decision-making process and management practices contributed to the disaster.