Status Report

CAIB Press Conference Transcript March 4, 2003 (Part 1)

By SpaceRef Editor
March 11, 2003
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ADM. GEHMAN: Mr. Wallace.

MR. WALLACE: Our group is Group 2. Any way you count us, we’re not in order, proof that we’re not ourselves rocket scientists on the board. My colleague is — we have two boards members on Group 2. Major General Ken Hess, who is the head of the United States Air Force Safety Center.

Last week I traveled to Kennedy Space Center with several of our investigators. General Hess did not join us on that trip. We, with all the groups, began the reconstruction facility. That’s sort of a focal point of the investigation even for those of us who are slightly less involved in the hardware aspects of the investigation.

Our group met with the launch readiness review chairman. Our group, in addition to operations and training, has the flight readiness, certification of flight readiness process, the on-orbit MMT aspects as well as mission payloads. So our focus in the trip to Kennedy was on the, among other things, involvement of the Kennedy people in the flight review.

There is a launch readiness review, just sort of a typical time line here, which is conducted at Kennedy. It deals with the facility’s infrastructure and the processing part of the orbiter, and that is typically a few days before the more formal flight readiness review which is typically a couple of weeks before launch date, the flight readiness review being the process that ends with the certification, signatures at the associated administrative level at NASA.

So we met with the chairman of the launch readiness review and the other people involved in that down at Kennedy. We also met with the final inspection team. There’s a group that goes out to the pad in the early morning, just in the hours before the launch and makes a last final exterior inspection, looking for anything out of the usual. It’s a top-to-bottom visual check and also indirect scanning check of the entire stacked assembly, looking for ice, debris, anything out of the ordinary. And we met with the launch director and went through the launch control facility and all the processes they went through down there. Without going into great detail, I can say that everything was nominal through the launch process.

An interesting focus of the launch director was he was particularly concerned with security issues, obviously I think a combination of the world situation and an Israeli astronaut. He said one thing that was different about this mission was the extreme security precautions.

The same team that does the final inspection also does the launch day video review. So they have 19 cameras focused on the shuttle as it lifts off and they immediately grab tapes from 19 cameras and go and put them in a composite and write a quick report on what they saw on the first day. We went through all that. They have different categories of things they look for. Categories of major anomalies, anomalies, and then another category called "funnies", anything that’s not quite normal, and then just observations.

Everything on the day of the STS 107 launch was in the observation category. Ice sheds off of the umbilical, which is the lower point where the fueling from external tank goes into the orbiter. It’s a perfectly normal procedure. They see frost in certain areas. There are light, almost cellophane-like wrappings that protect certain things, which are expected to just blow off, and do. And they expect to see minor scorching on the bottom of the fuel tanks. So they gave us a report on that, and everything was as they expected.

We also went to the space station processing facility because they have a role in payloads. Most of the missions are the space station’s. This one was a science mission, did not go to the station. They utilize the same facilities for processing of payloads. So we went through to see how that process worked and discussed in some detail the types of payloads and possible connections with the way they’re connected to the orbiter. I will say there are basically payloads in three areas on this mission. We have the Spacehab double module. The Spacehab, when you see the astronauts doing the Superman flight up and down on some videos from space, that’s in and out of there. And then there’s the free star platform on the back, which is outside of the Spacehab, not handled by anybody in space. Then on mid-deck where some of the crew lives, there are also some experimental payloads there, as well.

We went through their process, looking at anything that’s new, anything that’s different in terms of their very detailed approval process for carrying a payload, with strong focus on any interconnections to the orbiter or electrical or fluid connections. That process goes on. I will say that payload issues are not off the table, but I think I can say they’re kind of getting close to the edge of it because we have done a lot of work and haven’t seen anything significant so far.

I would say an intense area of focus for our group is now going to be on the flight readiness review and the mission management team, and General Hess is really leading on effort to focus in on that area. We’ll probably be doing a lot of interviews in the next week or two on that.

You’ve heard lots of discussion about disposition of prior foam events. To the extent it enters into the flight readiness process, we would be involved in that and then all of the much-discussed E-mails and decisions to call in DOD assets and on again and off again. We will be very, very thoroughly running all that to ground.

Another area which Admiral Gehman has asked our group to look at is conditions for return to flight. I will say we will sort of divide conditions for return to flight into two categories. There’s the big picture of ultimately who should go into space and why, and that is beyond our purview at the moment. I think, as Admiral Gehman said, we would intend to perhaps frame the debate in that area but not provide answers. What I think you will see this board do is provide more short-term return-to-flight recommendations — that is, focused on what would be necessary to return to flight sufficiently to at least ensure the continued viability of the international space station.

While we don’t have answers on what these recommendations will be at this point, I think here I can draw on my experience in the civil aviation sector and I would add that at the FAA, where I come from, we are being strongly assisted in this investigation by the NTSB at many levels. NTSB is down at the reconstruction. NTSB investigators are on our team and we have some NTSB senior aviation management people who are advising the board. So in the civil aviation process, I’m usually on the receiving end of the recommendations from them; in this case I will be perhaps on the sending of the recommendations.

I think you can anticipate a process similar to what you would see in civil aviation which would focus on both eliminating whatever specific failure you identify, perhaps even without determining that it was causal in the accident, eliminating specific failures and then either reducing the consequences of those failures or designing in an ability to tolerate those failures, so I think that sort of approach which we see in civil aviation. If we have a short circuit that causes a spark to ignite a fuel tank, well, we try to eliminate the short circuit, break, worn wire or whatever. We also try to inert the fuel tank ultimately. In other words, you want to eliminate the failure and tolerate the failure. I think that same general approach we would expect to use in these circumstances. That’s all.

ADM. GEHMAN: Thank you very much, gentlemen. I just want to make one or two closing comments. Once again, the board is enormously grateful to the thousands of people who are out searching for debris. Debris remains very important to us. Last week, on an average day we had over 4,000 people out searching for debris and over a dozen helicopters or fixed-wing airplanes in the search. The NTSB is integrated into our program. We’re very thankful to them. We’re very thankful to the states that are continuing to help us by running down reports of sightings. The Navy has been working its way through all those lakes in East Texas and has found a number of important things under water — Navy divers have. We’re very grateful to them.

The specific searches, particularly around Nevada, have not turned up anything yet, but we do have very, very good radar tracking data that indicates that something fell off the orbiter and fell in the area of this position near Caliente, Nevada, and we’re going to continue to search in that area. So I apologize for the rather long introduction, but I’ll be glad to take your questions now.

A SPEAKER: Can I ask you to clarify the damage to the tires that you talked about? A couple of questions. First of all, are both tires on the left side damaged or is it — are both of them damaged, the ones you had on the left side? Secondly, are you convinced that this damage to the tires did occur in orbit or while the shuttle was returning, as opposed to post after it broke up? Thirdly, if it did, in fact, occur in orbit, what could that have caused? What would that have meant?

MR. TETRAULT: Let me answer the first one. Both tires on the left side looked fairly similar and they have extreme — just visually, they look like they have gone through extreme trauma, whereas the one on the right side is more typical of what I understand is a more normal wear after an accident where it has a blowout in one area and the rest of the tire is mostly intact. Also we see that the threads are basically pulled apart and then have heat damage to them at some later point, which would indicate that the heat damage was probably coming from the reentry. So we would expect that it would be either as the shuttle broke up or shortly there afterwards that it might have blown. We’re not certain. I used the word "possibly" twice just to make sure you understood that I wasn’t saying they blew up inside the wheel well. We don’t know for certain exactly what that timing was, but it is possible that they, in fact, did.

ADM. GEHMAN: Let me follow up on that and let me ask Roger. We have telemetry from the wheel well, up until the time of loss of signal, that indicates that those tires were intact, they had the right air pressure, and they had the right temperature. So whatever happened, happened after the loss of signal.

A SPEAKER: Do you mean the loss of the original signal or the 30 seconds?

ADM. GEHMAN: The original loss of signal as NASA is calling it.

MS. BROWN: I’m going to try to take these questions geographically by groups to make it easier for the sound guys.

A SPEAKER: Mr. Tetrault, looking at the aluminum found on the tiles and the other edges there, can you give us any sense of how much aluminum was found on those as sort of a percentage of how that would be different and if that also is indicative of pre-event or during event or post-event?

MR. TETRAULT: The aluminum that we’re seeing, we’re seeing in a variety of different places. We’re seeing a black deposit, if you will, which is on the tires, which appears to be aluminum. It has trace elements that indicate it may be Aluminum 2024, which is part of the support structures that we’re dealing with. The kind of slag that we’ve seen on the inside of some of the RCC panels also includes aluminum. I don’t know exactly whether that is coming from the event or whether it’s coming from reentry heating. That’s something that we still have to work on yet and try to refine our thinking on how it is. This information was brand new as of last night around 6:00 p.m. So we’ve got some work to do in trying to refine that.

A SPEAKER: You said there was a hole on the — I think it’s the elevon actuator. Is that right?

MR. TETRAULT: It’s the left elevon actuator. The inboard side.

A SPEAKER: I’m trying to think, if that hole is caused by something coming off while the shuttle is in reentry before breakup, what the position of that actuator would be, how exposed it is to the wing in front of it, whether it’s the under side or the over side of the wing that it’s exposed to, et cetera.

MR. TETRAULT: The appearance of it, we haven’t done any metallographic examination of it anywhere near the area of the hole. We just took some samples this weekend. I was on the phone over the weekend with Kennedy, just trying to determine what quick samples we might be able to run and get some useful information on it. Where we have an item that we have a concern that, by destructively evaluating it, we may lose information that we weren’t smart enough to think about getting initially, we’re going to be very conservative about taking those pieces until we know exactly what we want to learn about the piece, which is one of the reasons why we haven’t tested around the area of the orbiter’s hole in the elevon.

There are technical people who speculate that the hole was really part of the reentry process, the result of it. It looks like the way that that might fly, the piece that we have might fly in reentry, that it’s entirely possible that it could have occurred there. We don’t know for certain and won’t know for some time.

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SpaceRef staff editor.