ORLANDO, Fla. – NASA paid $26.6 million to the families of seven astronauts who died aboard space shuttle Columbia – a settlement that has been kept secret for more than 2 1/2 years.
The space agency recruited former FBI Director William Webster, also a former federal judge, to act as a mediator and adviser in negotiating the out-of-court settlements, according to documents released to the Orlando Sentinel through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
The newspaper’s request yielded just seven pages of documents that leave many questions unanswered, including exactly when the settlements occurred.
In an interview with the Sentinel, Webster, also a former CIA director, said he was bound by confidentiality and couldn’t discuss details of the agreements, but defended the process as proper.
“The members of the families wanted this to be a private matter,” said Webster, a consulting partner in Washington with the international law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy.
In brief written responses to Sentinel questions Friday, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said little about the settlements, citing family privacy. He said the money came from the agency’s budget via a 2004 congressional appropriation.
“The Columbia astronauts were our friends and co-workers,” Beutel wrote. “Our concern always has been with the crew’s families and their loss, and as a result NASA didn’t announce details of the settlement in an effort to protect the personal privacy of the Columbia families.”
Columbia’s astronauts died Feb. 1, 2003, when the shuttle broke up on re-entry. An investigating commission later determined that chunks of insulation shed from the tank during takeoff damaged Columbia’s left wing, triggering the accident.