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Transcript of NASA Press Conference on the Space Shuttle Columbia with Sean O'Keefe (part 3)

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Wednesday, August 27, 2003

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MR. MAHONE: We'll take two more questions from the centers, and then we'll come back here to headquarters, and we'll go to Dryden.

QUESTION: Mr. Administrator, this is Jim Steen with the L.A. Daily News. I was wondering if the folks at NASA are looking at the possibility of bringing Shuttle landings back to Edwards Air Force Base as a safety precaution. And I also wanted to know what role, if any, that Dryden Palmdale facility will have in your return to space operations.

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, in terms of the option of landing at Edwards, to be sure, that is an option we've always exerted and used anytime the weather conditions don't permit a return to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. So we'll continue to do that, and anytime there is a condition which would dictate that we land on the west coast, that's exactly what we'll do.

The challenge thereafter, once landing at Edwards, is to transport the orbiters across country, and that's something that, again, one of the quality assurance and risk management challenges of dealing with the Shuttle orbiters, is the more you touch it and the more you fiddle with it, the more likely is the prospect that you can damage it. And every time we do that, it gets more and more difficult to sort with, because, again, it's always launched from Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Center.

So, yes, Edwards will always be an option, and it's one that we are not deterred by that challenge if there are factors that dictate the consideration of landing there.

In terms of the Dryden Center, there is no question that the flight operations activities that are continuing to go on there that cover a wide range of different supporting efforts that we go through for unmanned aerial vehicles for the Defense Department, for a wide range of different programs, no question we will continue to see that activity unabated there. And as circumstances dictate, there may be further flight test requirements that we would conduct there in support of return to flight activities for the Shuttle.

MR. MAHONE: We're having some technical difficulties at JPL, so we'll come back to headquarters. And, Mr. Administrator, if I could start off with Bill Harwood, we'll start with Bill.

QUESTION: Thanks, Glenn. Bill Harwood, CBS News. Well, just looking ahead to 114, I think the previous questioner was probably asking you about overflight to land at Edwards versus Kennedy, just for the record.

My question: Looking at 114, are you committed to not flying that flight until you have both a tile repair capability and an on-orbit RCC repair capability, realizing that it's the RCC that's obviously the long pole in the tent right now.

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, there's no question. The report very specifically divides the findings and recommendations into those areas which must be complied with prior to return to flight. We intend to take that with absolute conviction, no doubt about it, and we're committed to doing that.

Among them is the point of an on-orbit repair capacity, and that's the range of options, because it could cover a wide set of circumstances. We've got to look at what is a responsible set of options in order to provide that repair capacity, and those are the things we're looking at right now as weighing all those options to figure out what's the most appropriate course on that. But it's one of the requirements within the--or what we view as a requirement within the report as a recommendation that must be complied with prior to return to flight, and we intend to adhere to that.

MR. MAHONE: Mike?

QUESTION: Mike Cabbage with the Orlando Sentinel. One of the things the Board made pretty clear in their report was that they have a concern that after you implement cultural changes, that NASA will sort of backslide the way that it did after the Rogers Commission. What can you do to make sure that cultural changes you put in place now will still be in effect 5, 10, 15 years from now?

MR. O'KEEFE: That's a point that we really have spent a lot of time. Again, last night the Board was generous with their time for several hours in sorting through, and that dominated the discussion in many ways, and they were consistent and repetitive in their responses to this, which is it can't be personality dependent. It's got to be a set of institutional changes that will withstand any change in leadership and management and so forth, and it's got to be a set of principles and values that are reiterated regularly that then become institutionalized.

So, I mean, the measure of that is going to be, I think, over time if we see a real change in the mind-set. But, importantly, I'm very mindful of the observations that several have made in the public, which is, yes, we've heard this before, and, yes, they've pledged to do these things. No question, that's a very clear criticism.

All I can offer is I wasn't here at that time, and a lot of folks who were in senior management and leadership positions were not in those capacities at that time either. So we've got to move forward with the objective of adhering to what the Board has said, which is to be sure that it not turn on just the individual personalities involved, but instead become an institutional set of values and disciplines that will withstand that test of time. And that's going to be the real measure. It's something that, again, the jury's out. We'll see how far that goes, and I'm certain, I'm absolutely certain that you will be the judge of that.

MR. MAHONE: Frank?

QUESTION: Frank Sietzen (ph) with Aerospace America. Among the Board's report--recommendations yesterday was that the Space Shuttle be replaced as soon as possible. Admiral Gehman expressed his concern that there wasn't at least a design candidate on the drawing boards, he said.

Given that, are you looking afresh at when and under what circumstances to retire the Shuttle? And what kind of mix of systems do you propose to do so with?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, it's exactly one of the charges that is now slightly over 24 hours old that we do, so maybe I could--if I could ask you for another hour or two to get through that analysis, it would be helpful. But we are trying, I think, to sort through exactly what the implications would be there of a range of alternatives.

The Board--what I read and what I saw in the report was very specific in saying that if there is an extension of the Shuttle operations beyond the beginning of the next decade, it must be recertified. And so establishing what those recertification requirements would be is part of what I read also to be one of their recommendations and findings, that we establish exactly how we would go about doing that, so that you make those judgments today so that later, when those decisions are made by all of our successors, that there not be just matters of convenience taken at the time to determine what the recertification requirements would be. So that's an aspect we've got to think about now in anticipation of tomorrow.

And, finally, the approach we have pursued as a consequence of the President's amendment to last year's program submitted in November of last year to, as part of the integrated space transportation plan, is to begin an effort for a crew transfer vehicle that is focused on crew transfer capacity as a supplement to that capability that we have used for both crew transfer as well as heavy-lift cargo assets on the Shuttle.

And so we're pursuing that. There is a very aggressive effort right now to be very specific and very deliberate about a very limited number of requirements, and I think we have followed through on what the Board observation on that point is, which is to make sure that those requirements are very straightforward and not so extensive that it requires either an invention, a suspension of the laws of physics, or the use of what Admiral Gehman referred to last night as a material referred to as "unobtanium" in the effort of trying to put together the alternative. So make sure it's realistic, is something that is technically doable now, and that is the set of very limited requirements that we have put together for a crew transfer vehicle that is the orbital space plane configuration.

So we'll see what the results from the creative juices and innovation of the industry will be here in the weeks and very short months to follow.

MR. MAHONE: Debra?

QUESTION: I'm Debra Zabarenko. I work for Reuters. You've got a lot of big challenges contained in this report, but for safety concerns, you can go to safety experts and systems analysts. For organizational problems, you can go to the folks who are expert there. But one thing the report said that NASA needs and does not now have is the kind of urgent mission that it had during the Cold War years. Are you going to be looking to the White House, to Congress? Where are you going to go for guidance on dealing with what seems to be one of the biggest underlying problems that the report remarked on?

MR. O'KEEFE: Absolutely. Again, as I mentioned at the very opening of my comments here this morning, in each of these events of great success and great tragedy it has been always attendant thereafter with a very extensive national policy debate. And sometimes that national policy debate has resulted in a set of objectives that are identified, and in other cases it has been unsatisfying.

Our anticipation is this next national debate coming is one that we hope and we certainly plan for it to be a satisfying result. And how that sorts its way out between our colleagues within the administration as well as in Congress, and certainly the general public, is going to be a question that in the time ahead--and Congress has--the committees of jurisdiction have planned a set of very aggressive, very extensive public hearings in the weeks ahead that I expect will spark that debate. And the answer to your question I think will be resolved from that set of policy debates that will be shortly coming.

QUESTION: Do you agree with the report's estimation that that is something that NASA doesn't have right now, an urgent sense of mission?

MR. O'KEEFE: Nothing comparable to what drove us as a nation with the threat of the prospect of thermonuclear war by a bipolar, you know, opponent on the other side of this globe that existed in the early 1960s. No, we don't have anything nearly as earth-shattering in that. Thank God.

MR. MAHONE: Frank?

QUESTION: Frank Moring with Aviation Week. Another thing that the space program needs is money, and there's been some bad news lately from the--most recently from the Congressional Budget Office.

What is your assessment of the budget prospects for the space program as this national debate gets underway? And, also, what do you see as the cost of meeting--in rough terms, of meeting the Gehman recommendations?

MR. O'KEEFE: Again, I would not even speculate on what the national debate that will occur over the federal budget proposals would yield. That's going to be in the time ahead as well. That's happening currently. I think you pointed that very succinctly.

As a member of this administration, we certainly are going to be valuing and evaluating those particular consequences in the context of what is necessary to proceed forward with compliance with these recommendations and what resource requirements we'll have. And certainly that debate will continue and will go on inside the administration as well as within the Congress. And so the results of that will be known in due time.

In terms of what it's going to cost for us to implement, again, if you give me another hour on top of the one that I asked from Frank to figure out what the cost is beyond just evaluating a report 24 hours old, we might be able to get back to you. But at this juncture, I wouldn't even put an estimate or a price tag on that at this juncture.

MR. MAHONE: Okay. Brian?

QUESTION: Brian Berger with Space News. One of the points that the report made is that NASA has exhibited a tendency to bite off more than it can chew, have more ambition than budget.

Can you fix Shuttle, can you complete Station, and undertake an ambitious effort like Project Prometheus on the same schedule that you've laid out so far?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, again, this is not a new observation, is your point. It's one that was very clearly driven home to me in the course of my confirmation hearings, as a matter of fact, a year and a half ago by several Members of Congress, that we have had a history of trying to do too much with too little or not prioritizing sufficiently. And there are several different ways to go about looking at technology management. One is what is commonly referred to within, I think, the technology sector kind of approach, which is put a lot out there and let a thousand flowers bloom. And the ones that do come up and the ones that are considered to be of greatest value, those are the ones you pursue.

Well, maybe that's the closest comparable management approach of technology that was pursued within this agency in the past. Upon my arrival here, in fairly short order we established that there were three mission objectives: understanding and protecting the home planet, exploring the universe and searching for life, and inspiring that next generation of explorers. And if it doesn't fall in those three mission categories, it doesn't belong here--not because it isn't a neat thing to do or would be interesting or whatever else.

So in the course of the past year-plus, we've been really going through the process of winnowing down what are the programs that really participate and contribute to those three mission objectives very succinctly, and those that are neat ideas and good things to do, well, we try to find some other home for them somewhere else, but not here, because we're trying to be very disciplined and very selective about what we do. We've got to continue that effort and be more deliberate about it in the future, I think, in finding those efforts that fall within those categories.

In terms of the very specific example that you cited of Project Prometheus and developing power generation and propulsion capabilities, that is something that comes right into our wheelhouse of the kinds of things we need to be doing, and it marks the technology kind of prowess of this agency that it's been known for for four decades, which is to overcome those technical obstacles in order to achieve the next set of exploration objectives.

And so that is there in the program. It's fully financed. You know, the money that's required and the resources necessary in order to do so have been approved within our administration, have been offered to Congress for their consideration. And we're underway with that effort because that's one of the serious long poles in the tent to pursuing future exploration objectives. And so that one fits very, very precisely within those three mission categories, without reservation or equivocation.

MR. MAHONE: Mark?

QUESTION: Thank you. Mark Carreau (ph) from the Houston Chronicle. I think I have a question and a follow-up, if that's okay.

What do you contemplate--

MR. O'KEEFE: How can you have a follow-up when you haven't heard the answer yet?

[Laughter.]

MR. O'KEEFE: Sorry. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. O'KEEFE: Pardon me. I didn't mean to be flip.

QUESTION: That's okay, sir. Thank you. What do you contemplate doing or saying to your managers and workforce to explicitly uncouple schedule pressure to build the Space Station from the Shuttle recovery?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, let me take the first part of that because I'm not sure--Shuttle recovery, do you mean return to flight?

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

MR. O'KEEFE: Okay. I'm sorry. Again, the point that I think was very clearly enunciated in the report that resonated with me is that this may have begun to influence the program manager's view of how you proceed to meet milestone objectives. Again, that's a useful, very valuable management tool that has to establish goals. It's a leadership principle. You have to have folks--again, it's part of the point that was raised in several other questions earlier, too, that you have to have goals, you have to have objectives, you have to enunciate what they are and when you intend to achieve them. That's part of any other aspect of what we do.

The really profound point, I think, that the Board raised was that there was some mixed signal, miscommunication of that point, of which was more dominant. And so the checks and balances must be established, and they were very clear on that point repetitively in their--in every part of the report, that what we need to do is establish institutionally an ethos, a set of values, a discipline that really encourages folks to have an open communications loop, to express when they believe something to be not safe at that time to proceed with.

Now, that may not rule the day. It may not be, well, in that case, since you've simply asserted it, it must be so. There really is a case in which we've got to demonstrate that it is safe, and that's a very different approach that now the burden of proof, I think, has to be reiterated in that direction as well.

So as we move through this, establishing what those institutional checks and balances will be, and part--I think the answer to that one in this particular instance is assuring that that communication loop is very open and that there is resolution to each of the objectives or objections heard so that everybody is heard and that crisp decisions are made thereafter in terms of how to serve it up and follow through from there.

Once you've heard it, your follow-up?

QUESTION: Yes, my follow-up is: Do you need the flexibility to deal with the Russians, contract with the Russians, or whatever, to give you this time so that you have the supplies aboard the Station? And how do you deal with your international partners' expectations of having their equipment aboard, that there's commitments made even above your level to try to do that that you have to respond to? And I'm wondering how you deal with the workforce, but also deal with that issue. MR. O'KEEFE: That's a very important question and one that we've taken extremely seriously. But I'm very, very impressed with the response of our international partners and their capacity to really act like partners in an International Space Station effort. This is an endeavor pursued by 16 nations, and they have responded very, very definitively.

So in working through all those issues, as recently as a month ago I met with all the heads of agencies of the International Space Station partnership, and we worked through all of the challenges that, as we sort through the months ahead and anticipate return to flight, that there be a lot of obligations and commitments. We're going to continue to look to them and to us to honor as we work through this. And we have--I've got a very clear understanding with them, and they have been really just exemplary in the manner in which they've done that.

So I have--we've all taken a part of the responsibility of this, and we all view this as a partnership challenge. This is not something which they say, you know, to the United States, "What are you going to do to help us out today?" No. They've been very forthcoming in terms of their approach and accepting their piece of the partnership responsibility in doing this. It's been commendable.

MR. MAHONE: We're going to go right here.

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