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Transcript of NASA Press Conference on the Space Shuttle Columbia with Sean O'Keefe (part 2)

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

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MR. MAHONE: Yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: Marsha Dutton, Associated Press. The Board made--put quite a bit of emphasis on deadline pressure affecting decisionmaking and even usurping safety, and that this pressure came from on high. And you're up there in the highness here, and I'm just wondering--

[Laughter.]

QUESTION: --do you feel some accountability also for this accident since you've frequently made mention of the February 2004 date?

MR. O'KEEFE: Absolutely. I feel accountable for everything that goes on in this agency. That's a part of the responsibility and accountability I think you must accept in these capacities. No question about it.

The Board, I think, was very specific in observing that schedules and milestone objectives and so forth are important management goals in order to achieve outcomes, and these are--this is an appropriate and necessary way to go about doing business. But their observation was that in this instance, this may have influenced managers, may have begun to influence managers to think in terms of different approaches in order to comply. And in that regard, I think we have--we've got to take great heart in the point that--and stock in the point that in order to pursue such appropriate management techniques and approaches in order to establish goals, objectives, and milestones, you must also assure that the checks and balances are in place to guarantee that paramount, number one objective, which is safety.

In the course of my tenure here, there was not a single flight of a Shuttle that occurred when it was scheduled. Not one. And so as a consequence of that, I think the system has demonstrated the capacity to not only establish what those objectives would be, but also a capacity and a flexibility to adjust to those based on the realities and the pressures that may exist at the time.

Now, the fact that that, again, observed by the Board as may have begun to influence a decision on the part of managers was a very important observation and one that we need to assure that, as we make these institutional changes, that we adhere to the same management principles of setting goals and objectives, but at the same time assuring that the checks and balances are in place they not override.

MR. MAHONE: Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Steven Young with spaceflightnow.com. You said a few months ago that you warned NASA employees this report was going to be ugly. I'm wondering: Was it ugly? And what effect do you think it's going to have on agency morale?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, I think Admiral Gehman's observation, when asked the same question yesterday, was that, no, it's clinical and very straightforward. And there is no question about that. It is a very direct review. It is--again, the whole contingency planning effort that we went through on the prospect that something like this could happen ended up working exactly--better than we could have ever anticipated in that sense. That Board was activated that day. They met for the first time at 5:00 p.m. on that afternoon. So they were immediately about the business of investigating, and in concert with that, there was--there was nary a hint or suggestion that there was ever any point throughout the course of this seven months in which we sought to influence the outcome of that result.

What we wanted was an unvarnished, straightforward assessment from them, and we got that.

Now, I think the approach that we have talked about among our colleagues here in the agency is that it would be that straightforward approach, that that would be that direct commentary, and then in the process of reading through this, that we'd be deliberate about following--accepting those findings and complying with those recommendations in order to strengthen this organization in the future. I think we've got a very competent, very professional, extremely well considered work that didn't, you know, spare anything in risking, you know, the sensibilities or the emotions or sentiments of anybody in this agency. And that's exactly the way we expected it to be. That's what we wanted it to be. And that's what we asked for them to do. And they did it.

MR. MAHONE: We're going to take one more question here, and then we're going to go to our centers, and then we will come back here in just a few moments.

Kathy?

QUESTION: Kathy Sawyer, the Washington Post. Mr. O'Keefe, the report pointed out that the schedule leading up to next February was going to be as challenging and fast-paced as the one that immediately preceded the Challenger launch in 1986. Were you aware of that? Did anybody come to you and say, hey, we're pressing too hard? And what do you feel about that now in light of events?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, again, the scheduling and the manifest, as it were, the milestones and so forth that were set, was established by the Shuttle Program Office and the International Space Station program management at the request to specifically identify the optimum systems engineering approach for deployment of all of the components of the International Space Station. So they laid out the schedule. They established what those dates would be and milestone objectives would be. And, again, in the course of my tenure, there was not a single launch that occurred when it was actually scheduled.

So I think the approach that we adhered to at the time, as well as continue to, I think, is to always set what our milestone objectives and goals, and clearly the establishment of the core configuration of the International Space Station was an objective that our international partners looked to, Members of Congress, all kinds of folks examined and viewed as one of the seminal aspects that needed to be achieved in order to permit then a wider debate of what that broader composition or configuration of the International Space Station could be. But you had to reach that point first.

And so in dealing with that, the approach that the International Space Station and the Shuttle Program Office devised was that schedule for the optimum engineering configuration necessary to do so, and the operational considerations were factored into it. And, again, at every single interval, at any point in which there appeared to be any anomaly, the flight schedule was adjusted, as it was for every single flight since I've been here. There has not been one that flew on the day on which the launch schedule dictated it should. And that's, again, appropriate, necessary. The stand-down that occurred from June to October of last year was a direct consequence of that.

So all those factors, I think the paramount objective that we continue to look to is the safety objective. And, again, that's what the Board report points to, is that the checks and balances really needed to be reinforced, and we need to be mindful in the future that those be in place as we use that appropriate management tool, as they have identified it, of establishing goals, objectives, and milestones.

MR. MAHONE: Sir, we're going to go to Stennis first, so, Stennis Space Flight Center?

QUESTION: Hi, Administrator. This is Keith Darcy with the Times-Picayune out of New Orleans. Can you say how the return to flight process will affect the long-term flight schedule of the Shuttle, and specifically the production level at the external fuel tank plant in New Orleans.

MR. O'KEEFE: I wouldn't speculate at this moment. We've really--we've received the report yesterday, and what we have put together, again, is an implementation plan in its preliminary form based on everything that the Board identified in its public statements and commentary and in the written material they sent to us as preliminary findings over the course of the last several months.

Now we have the benefit of the entire report. We're going to update and upgrade that implementation plan. We hope to release that here in the next ten days to two weeks so we can identify what those objectives are, informed by the report. We also have a number of factors and issues that we have identified within the agency that need to be adjusted prior to return to flight. And so as that unfolds in the weeks and months ahead, we'll be able to establish exactly what it will take in order to achieve that.

But, again, the paramount, overriding factor in this case is going to be that we comply with those recommendations, and when we are fit to fly, that's when that milestone will be achieved on return to flight.

MR. MAHONE: We'll go to Langley. Langley?

QUESTION: This is Dave Schlect with the Daily Press. I have a question about the Safety Center being developed here at Langley. One of the Board's recommendations is to establish an independent technical engineering authority that would be the sole waiver-granting authority for all technical standards. It would decide what is and what is not an anomalous event and would independently verify launch readiness.

How might the new NASA Engineering and Safety Center fulfill this recommendation?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, we're sorting through that right now. The initial charter of the Safety Center has been formulated. As a matter of fact, Brian O'Connor is there at Langley today, working with General Roy Bridges, the Center Director at Langley, and others in order to begin working through the findings and recommendations of this report and how it will affect how we should adjust the charter of the NASA Engineering and Safety Center.

The approach that is identified--and, again, we spent a lot of time last night talking to Admiral Gehman and his colleagues on the board--of exactly how we may consider various approaches here, and they were more in the listening mode of what that could be, because, again, they have not been dispositive about which options we should select other than to, again, reiterate that the recommendations are to, again, establish that independent technical authority for the control of requirements of the Space Shuttle Program. And that's a factor of whether or not that's part of the Engineering and Safety Center, which, frankly, could serve as more of a research and development, testing, trend analysis kind of center and an organization that can come in to regularly examine what our processes and procedures are with a fresh set of eyes all the time, and to have the influence during the course of operational activities to identify cases where they see anomalies that have some historical or trend assessment to it, that's the issue that we've really got to sort through, is whether or not you have both of those capacities inherent in the same organization or whether it should be two separate functions.

In the time ahead, very short time ahead, that's, you know, the set of options we really need to sort through in order to comply with those recommendations, which I think are solid.

MR. MAHONE: Next would be the Glenn Research Center.

QUESTION: Mr. Administrator, Paul Winovsky (ph) from WOIO Television. I'm working on an assumption here that there's a backlog of science waiting to fly once safety concerns are handled. How will you go about prioritizing what flies in the payloads. For example, the combustion experiment developed here (?) was destroyed on the last mission. Is the pipeline full? And how will you prioritize what goes into space next?

MR. O'KEEFE: That's a very good question. There are two approaches we're going to use to this. The first one is that if you go to the Kennedy Space Center today, the payload processing facility and all the International Space Station program elements that have arrived are stacked up in sequence and are being tested and checked out for deployment at the--as soon as the resumption of flight occurs. So there will be not a lot of confusion about exactly what that sequence will be. It's going to follow the pattern that, again, fits that optimum systems integration, engineering strategy that is best for the production--construction of the International Space Station to reach the core configuration.

The science component will be drawn from an effort that we conducted through last summer and early fall, not quite a year ago, which was an effort to prioritize what the science performance will be aboard the International Space Station. We had a blue-ribbon panel of external scientists representing every single scientific discipline who came in to specifically organize what that priority sequence is. Until that time, it was a collection of priorities from every discipline, all of which ranked number one. And so when everything is number one, that means nothing is number one.

So what the Board--what was referred to the re-map effort did last summer and fall that organized that prioritization set actually had a rank order that began with the number one and moved through by sequence, two, three, four, and five, and so that is the sequence in which we will organize the Space Station scientific objectives from this point forward, because that is the primary source of all the scientific microgravity experimentation that will be carried out in the future, is aboard the International Space Station. So we'll adhere to that blueprint very carefully.

MR. MAHONE: Sir, we have a question at the Kennedy Space Center.

QUESTION: Mr. O'Keefe, this is Jay Barbee with NBC News. In talking with the workers here and in Houston, I'm finding they are very encouraged with you at the helm. They believe at this time in NASA's history that you are the right man for the job.

Now, they're encouraged by your honesty and your willingness to admit NASA's mistakes. But their concern is still communications. It has been stifled, and many with safety concerns have been intimidated into silence, in fear of losing their jobs.

Can you today reassure any NASA or contractor employee if they speak up with safety concerns, even to members of the press, that they won't be fired, that they won't suffer setbacks in their careers?

MR. O'KEEFE: Absolutely. We get it, and that's what message has been transmitted and understood by every single leader and senior official in this agency, is that we need to promote precisely that attitude. So the answer is absolutely, unequivocally yes.

MR. MAHONE: Johnson Space Center?

QUESTION: Gina Treadgold with ABC News. Sir, you've said you take responsibility. Do you plan to step down as a result of this? Or do you feel any pressure to resign?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, certainly I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States, and I will adhere to his judgment always on any matter, including that one. And so, no, there is nothing that in my mind transcends that requirement, and I intend to be guided by his judgment in that regard.

MR. MAHONE: Marshall Space Flight Center?

QUESTION: Shelby Spires with the Huntsville Times. Given that the Board suggests that the external tank be blown with no foam loss, and engineers say this isn't possible, is NASA prepared to redesign the tank without foam and go to Congress to ask for the money to do this?

MR. O'KEEFE: We'll see. I mean, there may be an option down the road in which will be selecting to do something along those lines. Don't know. But the approach that I think very clearly articulated yesterday by the Accident Investigation Board membership was that there--just based on the current configuration and the safety considerations, the issue of foam loss per se is not something they find as being totally disqualifying.

What they do find to be a problem and what was a contributor, to be sure, a causal effect based on what is the likely condition of what occurred in that first 81 seconds, was the departure of the bipod ramp from the--insulation from the external tank which struck the leading edge of the orbiter. That's the part that already we have eliminated as a factor that's going to be heating segments around that area to act as, instead of the insulation, so you will not find an insulated bipod ramp at that point on the external tank in the future.

Exactly how much further that's going to need to go, that's one of the things that I think in the report they said very specifically we ought to aggressively develop a program to eliminate departure of any debris of insulation coming off the external tank. And that's the part that has already been tasked and that Bill Readdy, as part of the return to flight effort, has already charged our external tank management team over to look at. So we'll be looking to the results of that view, and all the options are on the table. We'll see what comes.

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