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Yesterday’s sad news from Alaska about the tragic plane crash that killed former Senator Ted Stevens and four others, and seriously injured former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, his son and two others, brought to mind a chance encounter I had with both men over seven years ago.

At the time, I was working at NASA Headquarters in the Public Affairs shop, and times at NASA were even more difficult than they are today. In early spring 2003, NASA was dealing with the painful aftershocks of the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the seven crew members of STS-107. Everyday new information was coming out regarding the causes of the accident, and that meant painful news headlines for America’s space agency and families of the lost crew. Painful news headlines in turn mean a stirred up Congress, which is always looking for someone to blame and hang out to dry.

Congress was already upset enough with NASA.  Rather than wait for some congressionally sanctioned body to investigate the causes and events of the February 1, 2003 accident, NASA, because of post-Space Shuttle Challenger accident reforms, had immediately moved forward in the hours after the incident to begin its investigation.

The work of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), led by retired Navy Admiral Hal Gehman, was underway, but despite their on-going work, Congress still wanted its moment to question NASA. That is where this story begins.

Since O’Keefe was in charge of NASA, he got the hot seat. In the weeks following the accident, O’Keefe and NASA’s senior management poured over every ounce of information they could to find the causes of accident and share that with CAIB and the public, all while trying to move the agency forward. That by itself was no easy task.

When the time came for congressional hearings on the accident, the NASA General Counsel, Paul Pastorek, had the agency’s lawyers prepare volumes of information that would ultimately have to be absorbed by O’Keefe for Congressional testimony. In working with people close to the hearing prep, they literally described it as getting O’Keefe ready for trial. Before dozens of cameras, skeptical reporters and interrogating Congressional Members looking to take someone out, O’Keefe as the chief witness would have to contend with plenty of loaded questions.

In the spring that year, as more and more details were emerging that an apparent foam strike to the leading edge of the Columbia’s wing was the cause for the accident, O’Keefe traveled again to the Hill for another hearing. Each one of these seemed to be more like a public flogging and incendiary interrogation exercise than a civil discussion of the facts of the accidents. We even had a Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) “tirade” of hand waving and screaming at one hearing.  (I guess he was getting warmed up for future years.)

When O’Keefe went to the Hill this time, there were unsubstantiated rumors and media speculation about whether he would survive the on-going accident investigation. From the horrifying moments after the accident occurred, through the entire investigative process, O’Keefe showed incredible poise in handling the pressure of what was a truly volatile environment. Regardless of his leadership stamina in this environment, when Congress wants a body to throw on the fire, to tar and feather and place blame for something (rightly or wrongly), it usually gets its sacrifice.

O’Keefe prepared for this hearing with plenty of rounds of questioning murder-boards and was as ready as he possibly could be. So off to the Hill he went. Like a number of people at the agency, I was preparing to watch the hearing when a call came from Glenn Mahone (then Assistant Administrator for NASA’s Public Affairs) looking for a folder of information that had been inadvertently left behind. Since I knew where the Committee hearing room was, I volunteered to take it up, and after a NASA colleague gave me a lift to Dirksen Senate Office Building, I was on my way.

After clearing security and making my way to the hearing room, I arrived to find people literally jammed in the doorway. With all seats taken and more onlookers than physical space, the doors were opened in a way so as to allow more people to witness the proceedings.

Knowing that Glenn needed the materials, I started to move through the crowd saying I had something for the witness table and people begrudgingly let me move to the front to get into the hearing room.  At the time, Sen. McCain, who was then Chair of the Commerce Committee, had just wrapped up his opening statement and the then Ranking Committee Member Sen. Hollings was about to begin his. For those who don’t remember, Sen. Hollings, with his well-coiffed white hair and tan complexion, had a full throttle southern drawl down when it came uttering any word. In any of the NASA hearings I had ever seen him attend, Hollings always seemed to have a beef with the Agency, and he was about to let O’Keefe get an earful.

Since O’Keefe was the sole witness at the hearing, he was seated attentively looking at the Senators and listening to their pointed criticisms of the agency’s failings in the accident.

Standing at the front of the mass of people in the doorway, looking for Glenn Mahone, I began to hear behind me a voice saying, “Excuse me. Coming through. I need to get in here. Thank you.  Excuse me. Coming through,”

As these words were being said, the crowd of people behind me started to part ways until finally they parted directly behind me to reveal a small man, and there stood the legendary Senator Ted Stevens.

Recognizing him immediately, I also got out of his way. Stevens then proceeded to stand in front of this mass of people around the doorway and surveyed the situation, looking first at the Committee dais where the Members were seated, the well where a mass of photographers were lying on the floor taking pictures, and a gallery full of people. He seemed to take the entire situation in for a moment or two. By this point, Sen. Hollings was already in the full rambling throttle of his excoriating statement as O’Keefe gave him his full attention.

It was then I saw something that I had never seen before. Stevens proceeded to walk across the room and approach the witness table while the hearing was in session and a Congressional Member was speaking. For those unfamiliar with this behavior, this would be tantamount to standing up in the middle of a sermon at church, walking up to the altar and proceeding to adjust the candles and move things around. (You just don’t do stuff like this!)

Stevens went up to O’Keefe, placed his left hand on O’Keefe’s right shoulder and then extended his right hand to offer a handshake. O’Keefe, who seemed as surprised as the rest of the room to see Stevens appearing at the witness table greeting him with a handshake, especially while a Senator was giving an opening statement, shook his hand right back. By this time, all of the photographers had rolled around on the floor trying to capture pictures of the senior Senator from Alaska shaking the hand of his former staffer.

The gallery of witnesses took this all in and started whispering back and forth about what they were seeing.

The other attending Congressional Members looked up from the papers in front of them to see the handshake exchange between Stevens and O’Keefe, and you could almost see the air go out of their sails.

Stevens stayed there a moment or two longer shaking O’Keefe’s hand to make sure the photographers got their pictures and for the crowd and especially his Congressional colleagues to see what he was doing. Stevens’ simple handshake gesture, while breaking an unwritten rule about approaching a witness table during a hearing, delivered a clear and stern message to everyone, especially his colleagues in that room.

Very simply: “Don’t mess with my guy.”

As Hollings rambled on, looking up briefly to see the exchange between the two men, you could almost see the other attending Members begin to revise some of their pointed and nastier questions. Stevens’ public vote of confidence and support for O’Keefe seemed to change the temperature in the room.

In all of my time in Washington, I had never seen anything like it. It literally was a broadcast message that people who messed with O’Keefe risked the ire of Stevens, and they had been warned without a word ever having been spoken.

Stevens’ actions were as much a measure of his powerful presence as they were the authority by which he wielded his Senate powers. It was also a measure of the respect and devotion that he had for Sean O’Keefe.

After taking in what I had just seen, I found Glenn Mahone, delivered what he wanted and headed back to NASA Headquarters.

Upon arriving back, I was asked by my colleagues what I had seen. I shared with them what I witnessed and the unspoken message that Sen. Stevens had delivered. Sean O’Keefe had the full confidence of one of Congress’ titans and anyone who thought Congress was going to take him out was poorly informed.

I’ve thought about that incident quite a bit since news of the accident first emerged. It was one of the strongest memories I have from my time at NASA and from working the Columbia accident – one I feel fortunate to have witnessed first hand.

It also reminds me that for all of the power and authorities that any one of us gains, in the end, we are all mortal.

My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those lost and with the survivors, for their rapid recovery.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More