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Full Transcript: NASA Update on the Space Shuttle Columbia Sean O'Keefe and Scott Hubbard August 26, 2003 (part 3)

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2003

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MR. O'KEEFE: Anything else here? Any other questions? We'll come back here in a few minutes, too.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: In the final minutes before the break-up of Columbia there was decisions going on, there was some analysis going on between Mission Control and the pilots and it would seem to me that they were far from concluding actually what was going on and I was wondering if any analysis was done on the analysis at that time and what was going on and the urgency and the efficiency of what was being concluded at that time and how far they were actually from knowing what was going on at that time. Were they actually 20 minutes from realizing it before break-up?

MR. HUBBARD: In the report you'll find a detailed discussion of the time line, the discussions in Mission Control, the series of e-mails that had gone on in the background, primarily focussing on a blown-out tire. That's what the engineers thoughts might happen. They saw a temperature rise. Somebody else had been worried about this. What they were focussed on at that point was what would happen if you landed and had a tire that had been blown out due to some overpressure, overtemperature regime.

I don't think at that point that that people in Mission Control realized the other things that were going on. The data was on board the Orbiter. It was not telemetered to the ground . That's something that's in the recommendations. We need to see if we can bring more data to the ground in real time to evaluate what's happening.

MR. O'KEEFE: Let's go to the Johnson Space Center.

QUESTION: Hi. I had a question. The CAIB pointed out that one of the things causing confusion was that NASA didn't know long--didn't have a plan on how long the Shuttle would be flying and I was wondering if NASA had come up with anything on how long we're going to keep the Shuttle around. I know we're working on a replacement, the OSP. What will we do to ensure that that will last over several administrations that it will take to build it in this budget environment?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, the plan that we had submitted as part of the President's amendment to the budget last November as part of the Integrated Space Transportation Plan was in anticipation of flying the Shuttle for an extended period and that we look at what it would take to extend the service life of that asset to continue not only servicing the International Space Station and finish its completion but also to continue the logistics and operational flights necessary to do so because it is a heavy lift cargo-carrying asset, whereas the Orbital Space Plane or any derivative thereof that may emerge from this, which was also part of that amendment and is now under way and our competitive efforts are beginning to look at what those options will be, is primarily a crew transfer vehicle. It is not intended to be a heavy lift asset or to carry excessive cargo, as the Shuttle was designed and can do.

So the complement of both of those and supplement of both assets is what was envisioned for the longer term and that still is the approach that we seek to take and certainly the findings of the Accident Investigation Board and the assertion made in the report as well as today in the course of its release by the chairman and other members was that the expectation is Shuttle will continue to fly for some time in the future. Now how long that will be is something we need to continue to assess but it will always be based on the issue of how quickly can we anticipate the acquisition and therefore production of an Orbital Space Plane or whatever derivative that would be the crew transfer vehicle of choice for not only transit between earth and the International Space Station but also to develop the technologies necessary for exploration beyond low earth orbit.

So the opportunities to pursue all those and to really be focussed very specifically on the kinds of characteristics we want that asset to do is going to dictate in the months ahead exactly what kind of integrated space transportation plan will emerge once the deliberations within our administration, as well as the Congress, will yield in that process.

So stay tuned. We've got lots of things coming in the months ahead and certainly I think this Board report has done a commendable job of focussing that debate and giving us a very strong foundation upon which to have that spirited national policy debate in the months ahead.

Let's go to the Kennedy Space Center.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. This is Tom Pentrack from our Space Station and Payloads Processing Directorate.

MR. O'KEEFE: Hi, Tom.

QUESTION: As you know, successful Shuttle and payload processing here at Kennedy requires an effective teaming of both NASA and contractor workforces. While we implement these return-to-flight initiatives, do you expect any significant changes in today's government and contractor teaming arrangements? And furthermore, do you see a change in the role of our NASA Civil Service engineers?

MR. O'KEEFE: That's a good question. Certainly the partnership and the continuing the larger, broader NASA community for space flight operations has been a very successful endeavor and it's one that I think in the course of this report, having reviewed that rather intensively, and I'll ask Scott to comment on this, as well, demonstrates that that is a very workable kind of model and what we've done here.

Now how we may make adjustments in order to again respond to the Board recommendations for a range of organizational as well as management cultural adjustments in the way we look at things for safety, mission operations, the range of different engineering activities, this may portend a different distribution but that's not preordained.

There's nothing that was proscribed. There's nothing that's dictated in this report that says there must be a specific set of options or alternatives selected in compliance with each of these recommendations. We're going to have to really vet through all those options to figure out what is the right combination? What is the right set of choices of our capabilities for safety, for engineering, for the range of different capabilities we need and then to adopt a very specific set of principles that will define a culture that tolerates absolutely no deviation from that set of safety and engineering standards as we move ahead.

Scott, would you want to commend on that?

MR. HUBBARD: I can add one or two things. One is that the Board spent a lot of time looking into the consolidated contract, the so-called SFOK contract, and we found no evidence--we couldn't connect the dots between that activity and the accident but as you will read in the report, the Board expressed a concern without prescribing what the solution might be at all, about the depth of engineering and safety capability on the NASA side of the fence.

It is an inherently--space exploration is an inherently unforgiving and high-risk venture. It's been said one strike and you're out and there are many places where you need two sets of eyes, not a single one. But the Board did not prescribe what the solution was, left that up to us, to NASA, to figure out the right thing to do.

MR. O'KEEFE: Long way of saying we're going to have to continue to work through that but there's nothing I think that would be a major, major adjustment that that would be portending but it certainly means we've got to look at a range of options that may have some change distributive to the balance or the mix in this larger community of space flight operations. To the Marshall Space Flight Center.

QUESTION: Yes, a couple of caveats before I ask my question. It may be an apples-to-oranges question. It may be something that is addressed in the report, which I haven't seen. It also recognizes that quality is an extremely complex system and no one system of quality can always guarantee success. But I did take note that this morning the Board did mention quality in relation to the accident. For some time now we at NASA have been deeply involved in something called the ISO process, ISO-9000, ISO-9001. No doubt the agency has put a lot of resources in this particular quality program.

My question is does the ISO quality program have any relationship to the program and the procedures that were mentioned this morning? And is there an ISO paper trail that was useful to you in the investigation?

MR. HUBBARD: Thanks, boss.

MR. O'KEEFE: It's all yours, buddy.

MR. HUBBARD: The Board went through all of the paperwork related to the Columbia and investigated every single anomaly, everything that was written down as a change order or defect or repair, all of that. The Board members that did that found that some of the paperwork was in very good shape. Other things, such as getting the right set of drawings that were updated very quickly were a problem and that's the genesis of the recommendation of having digitized close-out photographs need getting good CAD models, computer-aided design models, and so forth.

The Board did not look at ISO-9000 except there is one comment in the report that ISO-9000 came from an industrial background and what we do is research and development, but we made no conclusions one way or the other about the adaptation that we do.

MR. O'KEEFE: To the Stennis Space Center.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Administrator O'Keefe. Allen Mader.

My question is with release of the report, do you think that this will have an effect on astronaut recruiting, particularly with the educator-astronaut program?

MR. O'KEEFE: As a matter of fact, the astronaut office and the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, Bob Cabana as the director there, has recently come in to lay out the procedures for the recruitment of the coming class here, likely to be late this year or early next, which will be the first class in three years, almost four. So the objective is to start working at very specific kinds of disciplines and professional qualifications.

He's not looking at a large class that may even--it won't even be a fraction of what the numbers were in '96 and '98 relative to that but he very specifically in laying out that particular strategy and we've signed off on that plan, lays out that specific approach to recruiting specific disciplines. And among those disciplines are a specific requirement for educator-astronauts.

Again recall that the way that we created and set up the requirements for educator-astronaut is that they, all candidates, much like Barbara Morgan, as they move through this particular astronaut training program and candidacy and then ultimately through the advanced training effort, will go through precisely the same training efforts in order to be fully qualified for every dimension of duty aboard any individual flight or International Space Station in the task of fulfilling those particular responsibilities.

So there is no distinguishing feature in the disciplines between and among any of the different disciplines or professional series if you will within the astronaut corps and the educator-astronauts, just like Barbara Morgan, are completely involved in every single aspect and dimension of that training.

So we'll be looking at a smaller class but one that very specifically will fill the kind of discipline requirements that we have in the time ahead for the astronaut corps overall, to include educator-astronauts, as well.

To the Ames ReSearch Center. That's a place that you're looking forward to getting back to. Would you like to ask a question?

QUESTION: Scott and Sean, this is Mark Cohen. We met at Ames about a month ago. I'm president of the Ames Federal Employees Union, IFPT Local 30 and my question pertains to two trends that we have observed in the agency over a period of a decade or more, which is the devaluing of technical and engineering expertise and competence on the one hand and on the other hand, the ever-increasing pressure to out-source, contract out, privatize, and turn things over to the private sector.

My perception of what happened during the course of this sequence of events that led to the accident is that we had alarms and alerts coming from in-house NASA engineers but the Shuttle program management preferred the soothing but superficial and ultimately misleading viewgraphs from the contractors to the technical concerns of the in-house people. I see this as occurring in a climate where NASA management sometimes tends to disdain our own technical competence as a kind of endangered species and prefers any opportunity to throw the money over the wall to the contractors.

Did the Accident Investigation Board consider this set of trends and the environment it creates within the agency?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, it sounds like you've made up your mind already. The approach I think that we're trying to do I think at this point and will emphasize as part of our--as I mentioned in my comments, the Board has been extremely forthcoming all the way through the investigation and very open and very candid about what direction we're heading. And in the process of doing so, it gave us a really, I think, enormous head start in the process of looking at the kind of corrective actions we need to make.

Among them is the establishment of the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, which will be United States government employees, public servants, engineers and a range of other disciplines who'll be charged with the task of being removed and independent from each of the program management activities, as it were, but looking at trend analysis in a variety of different efforts to assure that we're not overlooking the anomalies, not becoming I think accepting of things we see repetitively and instead doing the testing, doing the kind of review, and that's going to call for, I think, some rather extensive, very talented professional technical talent that's resident within this agency now.

So in the days and weeks ahead you're going to see a lot more of General Roy Bridges, who now has taken the lead in the directorship at the Langley Research Center, working to try to develop and recruit through all of our centers the folks who are interested in and very anxious to be part of this Engineering and Safety Center. And to the extent we've got to add additional personnel to that, that's what we're going to do.

So as time marches ahead here, I think we'll see lots of different examples of that and moreover, I think Scott's point, which again I'll defer to him in just a second here, that he made just a few moments ago is in looking through the history of this--as I recall it, it was seven or eight years ago--in which the space flight operations contract was converted at that time, their review of that particular activity as a contractual matter did not suggest that there was any absence of diligence from anybody associated with the larger, broader space flight community in this particular case.

It was more a question of do we have the adequate depth--and I think this is your point, Mark--in engineering and technical talent in order to really cover these kinds of additional requirements like the NASA Engineering and Safety Center? And we'll be seeing that in the days and weeks ahead as we're looking to recruit the folks that stand up that organization and make it as tough and as competent, as Gene Kranz would suggest, as we know how to make it. And therefore make sure that every single program we're engaged in, not just space flight but across every parameter, everything NASA does, that's going to be the purview of this organization and they will be public servants like all the rest of us here.

Scott, do you want to comment on that?

MR. HUBBARD: Maybe just to add one or two things, which is I think you hit the nail on the head. It's checks and balances, some depth on the bench. In the time that the administrator alluded to where I got to come here to NASA headquarters and reconstruct the Mars Program after those failures, one of the things we looked at is whether there was adequate attention to the off-nominal, to the unexpected, whether or not there was enough resources being put into evaluating not just the success-oriented main path you were on but the side lobes, you know, the places where the gotcha's can occur.

And as a consequence, we, in fact, added some more effort to that kind of activity and I think that's what the engineering center and this independent technical authority can do, is to take the time, since they don't have the schedule pressure, to go and look at some what-ifs, to go and evaluate materials characteristics and have that kind of depth on the bench that will enable us to really understand these developmental vehicles.

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