HEADLINE: PANEL ASKS NASA FOR ITS REPORTS ON BOOSTER RISKS
BYLINE: By PHILIP M. BOFFEY, Special to the New York Times
DATELINE: WASHINGTON, Feb. 9
The commission investigating the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger asked the space agency today to produce all records relating to problems involving safety seals on the booster rockets.
The commission, headed by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers, announced that it would examine the documents at a private session Monday and hear testimony from officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration about the seals on Tuesday.
Warning of Catastrophe
The commission's action comes in the wake of a report in The New York Times today that NASA had been warned by its own engineers and analysts last year that the seals were eroding in flight and might leak.
According to documents from the agency's files, one budget analyst warned last July that failure of the seals, which are designed to prevent flames from burning through the seams where segments of the booster rockets are joined, ''would certainly be catastrophic.''
Inquiry Focuses on Booster
NASA officials say they suspect that a rupture near a seam in the right-side solid-fuel booster rocket may have been a primary cause of the explosion that killed seven astronauts shortly after the shuttle lifted off Jan. 28.
Mark Weinberg, a White House spokesman who is serving as the press official for the commission, said today that Mr. Rogers had called for ''all internal documents and reports of investigations relating to seals on the booster rockets'' after reading the article in The Times. ''The commission is concerned about all aspects of this matter,'' Mr. Weinberg said. Both Mr. Rogers and Mr. Weinberg said that NASA had agreed to respond to the commission's request.
Mr. Weinberg also said that the commission had noted discrepancies between NASA testimony at the commission's first meeting last Thursday and material in the documents concerning the seals. However, another commission source said that the discrepancies appeared minor and could probably be attributed to lack of familiarity by top NASA officials with all the details of problems with the seals.
The commission's closed session will be held at 2 P.M. Monday in the Old Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. An open session Tuesday is scheduled at 10 A.M. at a site that has not been determined.
NASA to Report to Panel
The space agency is performing its own technical investigation of the explosion. Its findings are to be presented to the 13-member Presidential commission, which has the authority to call additional witnesses and seek additional information as well.
After receiving the commission's request today, the space agency began assembling the documents concerning seals and alerted its offices around the country to cooperate with the investigation. A message sent this afternoon from NASA headquarters to staff members and reporters at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida said that Dr. William R. Graham, the acting Adminstrator of NASA, had assured the commission of the ''full cooperation'' of NASA employees.
Press Meeting Scheduled
The message also said that a NASA spokesman would be available to answer questions from reporters after the open hearing Tuesday.
NASA's own investigation into the disaster has been conducted with great secrecy. Space agency officials have refused to discuss the internal memorandums concerning problems in the rocket seals.
NASA's internal documents indicated that charring and erosion of the seals, known as O rings, had caused concern among some agency engineers and analysts.
One engineer's memorandum cited 17 instances in which the primary O ring had been eroded in flight, and at least one instance where the backup O-ring, the last barrier protecting the seam between segments of the rocket's outer casing from the rocket's gases, had been eroded.
Another memorandum, by a budget analyst assigned to review the problem, warned that ''flight safety has been and is still being compromised by potential failure of the seals.''
''Failure during launch would certainly be catastrophic,'' the memorandum warned.
Evidence of Plume
If the seals failed during launching, hot gases and flames could escape through the side of the booster rocket rather than through the bottom nozzle that channels the gases out the rear. Still pictures and videotape of the Challenger's last seconds made public by NASA several days after the explosion clearly show a plume of flame erupting from one side of the booster.
Dr. Graham has said the plume appeared to have emerged from an area near a seam joining the two bottom segments of the right-hand booster rocket, but he said NASA has not established whether the plume occurred ''at the seam or just near the seam.''
A study by NASA of pressure readings from right booster showed a sudden drop in power about 10 seconds before the explosion. Such a pressure loss would be consistent with a rupture in the wall of the rocket, aerospace engineers have said.
A leading theory of the cause of the explosion is that flames spewing
through a ruptured seam may have burned through the adjacent external tank,
which contained the liquid fuel that powers the shuttle's main engines.