This time, everyone gets to play cosmic investigator

NASA's new culture of openness is winning praise, but a theorizing public isn't always helpful.

When NASA officials went on national television one day after Columbia broke apart, providing crucial data on the shuttle's last moments, it was seen as a sign of a fresh openness at the space agency. Gone were the policies that 17 years ago cloaked the Challenger investigation in uncertainty and accusation.

Yet today, nearly a week on, that policy of passing along every bit and byte of information has, for many Americans, frustrated as much as it has enlightened.

As officials told of gauges failing and foam falling from fuel tanks, the country watched with rapt attention, connecting the dots in a cosmic crime-scene investigation. But now, as the pace has slowed, the probe has turned from a seeming fast track to truth to an education on the slow grind of the scientific process.

It's a unique situation for NASA and the nation. Never before have accident investigators shared so much data with the public so quickly, a process one commentator likens to "drinking from a fire hose."

At times, it has resembled third-grade show-and-tell, as NASA officials explain laws of physics foreign to all but PhDs. At others, clues have led to rampant and often critical speculation. Yet even the staunchest NASA critics say this is all a part of progress - and the public hubbub is unlikely to hinder the investigation.

"I've seen NASA at its worst and NASA at its best, and this is NASA at its best," says Keith Cowing, a former employee who now runs NASAwatch.com, a watchdog website. "Being at your best means releasing information you might not want the public to see ... and letting anyone make their own assessment."

And so they have. From the earliest hours of the investigation, news crews and commentators focused on a piece of foam that broke off the fuel tank after liftoff and struck the underside of the left wing. Yet NASA officials have repeatedly remained skeptical of that theory and have now started to actively debunk it with photos and foam samples.

Instead, they have turned more attention to photos taken by amateur photographers and accounts of debris found as far west as California. Current theories, spotty at best, include the possible collision with a piece of space junk, or flaws in the wing that led the shuttle to swing out of control.

The disconnect between shuttle scientists and average Americans is fundamental, observers say. NASA officials come to the probe with a much different expectation and understanding. For example, the NASA admission that falling foam may have damaged the shuttle wing in question can sound catastrophic.

"But in the shuttle program, there are expected to be problems," says Diane Vaughan, author of "The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA." "This is a reusable vehicle. There is damage every mission." What she finds surprising, she says, is NASA's willingness to be questioned, lectured, and second-guessed at two news conferences a day. During the Challenger investigation, NASA was renowned for responding to even the most basic questions with "no comment."

In the end, a whistle-blower had to raise the issue of faulty O-rings - a subject that eventually unraveled a string of poor decisions and oversights. "They had things to hide," says Dr. Vaughan.

Now, it seems NASA can't share its information fast enough. Part of it is a lesson from the Challenger disaster. "While Mission Control always was prepared for failures, NASA itself didn't have a contingency plan," says Vaughan. "Chaos reigned, and part of the reason for clamping down on information was to set things in order."

Others say there has also been a deeper cultural change at NASA, which seems to have realized that in the Internet Age, withholding information can be a sure path to problems.

"You actually add energy to those who think you are holding things back by holding things back," says Mr. Cowing. "This time, people aren't debating the information that NASA is putting out there, they're using it to dispute the conclusions."

Most agree the theories, and the furor over them, will do little to distract investigators. Says Cowing: "They don't care what the press says. They want to find out what went wrong so this won't happen again."

Still, the very fact that civilians - with little knowledge of the shuttle or physics - are using NASA's data to draw conclusions strikes some as a little premature.

"For the public to come up with their own theories from press releases is ridiculous," says Simon Ostrach, an engineer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize the complexity of what is going on."

For once, though, many NASA critics are trusting rocket scientists to do the work. "I've not been hearing a lot of [criticism]," says Cowing. "And I'm inclined to be suspicious."

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