Status Report

Columbia Accident Investigation Board News Conference 4 March 2003 – Part 1

By SpaceRef Editor
March 4, 2003
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  • Adm. Harold Gehman, USN, Chairman of CAIB
  • Adm. Steve Turcotte, Commander, USN Safety Center
  • Roger Tetrault, Chairman and CEO, McDermott International
  • Steve Wallace, Chief, Aviation Safety Division, FAA

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GEHMAN: First of all, I’d like to thank our hosts here at the Center for Advanced Space Studies and the Lunar and Planetary Institute for allowing us to use their facility for our press conference, and we appreciate it very much. It looks like it’s a little more cozy than what we’re used to, so I like it better.

The board remains completely determined and energized of finding the answer to this problem. We are still working seven days a week. Our energy and our seriousness have not flagged. We still have confidence that we’re going to find the cause–the direct cause and determine the contributing causes. We are dedicated to that end, and we have no slacking off. We’re not getting discouraged just because we haven’t found it so far.

As usual, we’ll follow the same procedures we’ve done before. I’ll introduce three members of the board, one representing each group. I’ll make a few introductory comments as to what the board’s been doing and what we’ve been doing. Each one of them will lead off with a short introduction of what their groups are working on. And then we will allow you to dialogue with the board.

As you know and as I have repeated in previous press conferences, we don’t save up the news until Tuesday and then let it all out. We let the news out as it comes out. This is more of a chance to dialogue with the board. This is more of a chance to ask in depth questions. But if you find something newsworthy, that’s fine too. So after each of them makes a short opening statement, we’ll open it up to questions.

To my left, starting at my left is Admiral Steve Turcotte, who is the commander of the Navy Safety Center. He is on the group number two, as we call it, the group that’s looking at operational issues.

To his left is Mr. Roger Tetrault. Mr. Tetrault is the ex-president of Electric Boat and chairman and CEO of McDermott. As the president of Electric Boat, he built nuclear submarines so he knows contracting, government contracting and he knows specifications and he knows how government contractors operate with the government. Since this program is about 80 percent contracted out, we thought he would be able to help us a lot.

And to his left is Mr. Steve Wallace, chief of the Aviation Safety Division of the FAA. He’s in group number one, as we call it–no, number two as we call it. The group that’s looking at flight issues and all those kinds of things. Roger is in the group that’s looking at technical and engineering analysis kinds of things, the telemetry, what the debris tells us, independent analysis and all those kinds of things.

So let me start by summarizing a couple of matters, and then each of them will get a chance to speak.

First of all, let me talk about my letter to Mr. O’Keefe. I asked Mr. O’Keefe, because of the way that this investigation has been progressing and as we have been kind of opening the aperture of the investigation now into management issues–management issues include all kinds of boards and committees and oversight actions and things like that–it has become apparent that some of the chief managers of the investigation which NASA and this board share are also members of these boards that we’re going to be looking at.

We are then put into place of having the investigators investigate themselves. That’s not exactly true because NASA is not investigating management issues. Only we are investigating management issues. But it really does put us in the position of some of my chief lieutenants, who are conducting the technical part of the investigation, are also going to become subject to this part of the investigation that’s going to look at oversight and management, and I found it to be not compatible.

So without any suggestion that anybody’s done anything wrong or any suggestion that they’re under suspicion of anything like that, it’s more of a process issue that I can’t possibly have key investigatory managers also be the people whose performance we’re looking at in other areas. It seemed to be incompatible with that.

Mr. O’Keefe has agreed to make these changes, and you’ll notice in my letter, which has been released, that I didn’t put any time limits on it, nor did I name any particular people. Its top level space shuttle program managers cannot be also in the investigation. That’s as far as I want to get on that. I’m satisfied with his response. I happen to know for a fact that this process is ongoing, so you can color me satisfied and I view this not to be an issue any more, at least as far as I’m concerned.

Public hearings start this Thursday. The purpose of the public hearings is twofold: The first is they will allow us to read into the public record matters that we are investigating more privately. It will allow us to make, as a matter of public record, things that we’ve discovered and people that we’ve talked to. It will also allow a formal process by which non-NASA people, non-NASA experts, who may have theories or opinions or hypotheses or may have contrary views, can make those views known in kind of an official kind of way.

We’re going to start our public hearings at the beginning. By that I mean, things which may not be very exciting and newsworthy, but you have to start at the beginning, so we’re going to start in logical sequence. We’ll start off with the organization; who works for who, who reports to whom, what are your responsibilities, what are your authorities.

And so, we’re going to call on Mr. Dittemore, the project manager of the space shuttle program, and we’re going to call the JSC center director, who, I believe, is going to be represented by his deputy center director because I believe that General Howell has a funeral to go to. So we’re going to start with the center director and the project manager and examine the lines of responsibility and who’s responsible for what part of the investigation.

We will also have then two NASA people appear who will give us views which might differ a little bit as to how this program goes. We’ll see how it goes–I don’t know what they’re going to say. We have Mr. Harry McDonald, who was the chairman of the last really big review of the space shuttle program. It’s called the SIAP; I think it was called the Shuttle Independent Analysis Panel, or something like that. I’m not doing Mr. McDonald much justice here. It’s a review that we have studied some some degree, and he’s agreed to appear. He’s retired. He used to be the director of the Ames Research Center.

The other person we’re going to hear from escapes my mind right now–oh, yes, other person we’re going to hear from is a foam expert, Mr. Keith Chong (ph) from Boeing Corporation. We’re going to get a little bit of the theory of foam before we start going into who did what to whom and whether it was done correctly.

So that’s where we’re going to start.

The public hearings will pick up in pace. Pretty soon we’ll be doing them probably at the rate of two a week, probably two weeks out of three. So the pace will pick up. The content that we examine in public hearings will get more serious and more controversial as it goes on, but it’ll be done in almost a chronologic sequence.

The next thing we’ll examine will be the launch and pre-launch preparations. Then probably we’ll get to the ascent–that’s where foam comes off and that kind of stuff–then we’ll get to the discussion of e-mails and all of that. We’ll get to it in a chronologic order and kind of logical order so you can follow what’s going on, and then each one will build on the previous one. We’re not going to jump into the end and go backwards from there.

So that’s what’s going to happen with the public hearings. They will be mostly here in Houston but not all. We’ll hold public hearings in Kennedy and Marshall and Washington, D.C. if we have to, wherever it goes, and I’ll be glad to answer any questions on that.

The subject of board expansion is being worked right now. I’m talking to potential board members. I don’t have anything to announce. But it is ongoing, and we’ll announce that as soon as we have something to tell you. I’ll just tell you that I’m looking for people by category. I’m not doing this by personality or a popularity contest. I’m looking at some people to help me with the history and culture and budgets and management of NASA. And I’m looking for a physicist to help me with part of it, and some others.

I’ll give you a couple stats. I don’t have the exact stats here with me. We can put them on our web site for you, but we mentioned last week that our web page 1-800 number, e-mail address, all of that kind of stuff, we’ve had I think 3.5 million hits on our web page. We’ve had a couple of 100 unsolicited letters, some of which have come with analysis and documentation and actual enclosures to them. Some have been handwritten on a piece of paper and a couple of hundred e-mails recommending that we look at this and look at that. It’s all very valuable. We’re following up on every one of them. Every one of them gets catalogued. And then every one of them gets sent to one of these three panels that you see here to my left and then judged as to whether or not we want to talk to that person some more or follow up on them. So they’re all valuable.

That’s kind of my introductory report. I’ll turn it over to Admiral Turcotte to have him tell you what his group’s been working on.

TURCOTTE: Good afternoon. I’m Admiral Steve Turcotte.

My group is the maintenance, material and management. We’ve looked at basically maintenance and material from–if you go all the way back to design–all the way through the different orbiter maintenance periods and then, more particularly, what we call flow or this maintenance period between the last flight and this flight.

This week along with the two other members of my board, Brigadier General Duane Deal, who is, in his day job, the commander of the space wing at Peterson, and Major General John Barry, who is from the Air Force Materiel Command and also in the past has spent some time inside NASA and worked on the previous accident investigation.

This week we divided our efforts between Utah, looking at Thiokol, looking at the SRB assembly, the plant, the facilities. We’re looking at everything from the quality assurance organizations to the flow of paperwork, how that was done. Was it done in a timely process? Good/Bad? All of those things from many different angles. Additionally, Major General Deal spent a lot of time at Michoud this week. I wish I had done that because today is Tuesday and that’s probably where we should all be.

But looking specifically at the foam, the process, the entire assembly process, the QA process from beginning to end, in the history of the tanks and some of the sister tanks that flew on this particular flight. General Barry spent some time in Palmdale. This is where all of the shuttles were built. There are still shuttle tooling facilities out there, and some of the shuttle processing and paperwork is still–or some of the maintenance actions done on internal pieces to the shuttle are done out there.

To give you an idea of the complexity and magnitude, if I could show you this. These pictures will be posted on the web site. This is a picture of OPF-I in its Orval Processing facility-I at Kennedy, and this is a picture of an empty one; the other two are full. The next one I’ll show you; this is one with the shuttle Discovery inside it. A pretty impressive technical facility. The amount of paperwork just alone that we’re looking at, in just this most recent flow between the last flight and this flight, is over a million and a half pieces of paper.

We have a full team of people, seven days a week, looking at the paper, looking at the processes; and, in particular, we’re going to focus on some of the critical areas. I’ll give you an idea of some of the complexity. And again, this will be posted on the web site. This is a picture of the left wheel well. If you could focus in on that a little better. The complexity of this is huge. There are numerous wires, hydraulic lines, censors that run through there. Huge, complex. And in the process of doing this, we’re going to look at every single action that took place throughout the orbiter in some of these sensitive areas, from detailed every single piece of paper. A lot of eyes on; lot of time.

To continue that; after the first part of this is done, the next is to go backwards in time. We’re going to look at the major overhaul periods and look at that paper, and I wouldn’t even care to estimate. That’s probably 20 to 30 to 40 million documents that are out there, if you look at it over the time.

And that’s our focus; is going backwards tracing this thing as far back as we can to ensure that nothing was over looked and that all of the processes and the maintenance and the logistic processes were accurate and in place for the safe operation of the shuttle program.

That concludes my presentation.

GEHMAN: Thank you very much.


TETRAULT: OK. Our group is group number three, the technical group, and we have subdivided ourselves in order to get much more depth into very specific areas.

Now, Mr. Scott Hubbard, one of our group members, has taken the external tank and he also has the tile systems. He is currently as Southwest Research today, and he is reviewing their test plan to shoot at tile and RCC panels. Jim Hallock has the fault tree analysis and also the sensor investigation, and Sheila Widnall (ph) is following the aerodynamic analysis and the boundary layer analysis.

I am particularly focusing on wing leading edge systems and that includes the RCCs and the stainless steel attachment brackets that go onto the leading edge of the wing. And I also have the control, the release and the testing of debris, and that’s after its arrival at Kennedy Space Center.

Now, I spent much of last week at Kennedy Space Center reviewing the debris, and I had with me experts in the shuttle tile system and in the reinforced carbon-carbon systems, and they were Howard Goldstein and Don Regalli (ph). Both of them are retired and experts in their area. We’ve also placed a temporary debris resident at Kennedy, and he is Dr. Greg Kovacs from Stanford University.

Now I’m going to show you a picture here which will be on the web site. This is a picture taken in the hangar where the majority of debris is being stored and where it’s being reconstructed. And as you can see, there are specific full-scale areas which are marked in blue on the floor and these are used in the reconstruction, and they replicate the areas of the orbiter, like the wings, the tail and the fuselage and so on. And if you see a red area, that’s would be where a wheel well is. We also have a smaller hangar and in that hangar internal tanks and engine parts are being stored.

This picture is not totally populated. To date we have collected some 22,563 parts. We’ve identified 16,063 of them. The total weight of the collected debris is about 32,100 pounds and that represents about 13.7 percent of the original weight of the orbiter. This is an important item. The pieces from the right side of the aircraft exhibit extreme temperature excursions, and that’s the result of reentry heating. So it’s going to take some skill on our part to separate out what is damaged from reentry and what was caused by the super-heated air entering into the breach of the left wing.

Now let me talk about some of the individual pieces, or some of the groups of pieces that have been retrieved and are looking at. And I’m going to start by a short discussion on the tiles.

In the far left-hand side of this picture, on a blue wing, you can see that there are tiles in gray plastic containers, and that’s, as I said, on the left side of the photograph. Before I left Kennedy last Thursday evening I counted 105 containers placed on the left wing reconstruction area. Now most are not specifically located on the actual spot that they belong on because the serial numbers have been wiped off the tiles and we are only able to locate them in the patterns in which that specific type of tile and that specific size of tile may have occurred.

Many of the tiles on the left side have a thin black deposit on them, and that deposit has never been seen on any previous flight. We started doing material analysis on these tiles and on other things this weekend, and on the particular tiles we found that that black deposit had a very high concentration of aluminum in the deposit. We also checked the red spot that was on a tile and that checked out as hydraulic fluid.

We’ve also found a left inboard elevon actuator, and it has a sizable hole that’s burned into the actuator tube. The hole’s approximately four inches by two inches, and the best guess at this point is that it actually came from reentry damage. Hydraulic fluid which leaked from the hole was tested, and surprisingly, showed no significant overheating in spite of the fact that we have a hole which was burned into the tube.

Let me talk about tires. I’m going to show you this, this will be on our web site. The top tire is one of the right main landing gear tires. The one on the bottom is a left inboard main landing gear tire. There is, obviously, a significant difference between these two tires. We’ve recovered both of the tires from the left wheel well, and we’ve been able to identify their exact position inside the wheel well by the amount of patches that there were inside the tire.

The tires on the left side, obviously, have a significant difference in appearance from the ones that are on the right side. And by the way, the fabric has been torn on the left side, we believe it is possible, and I’ll say that again, it is possible that the tires on the left side blew very late in this event. And this would have been a late event because we have data that indicates that the orbiter was flying under control until the last few minutes before break-up. The blowing of these tires would likely have been a very catastrophic event, so it couldn’t have occurred until late in the event.

Michelin is the maker of these tires. We have contacted Michelin to get some help in our investigation. As I mentioned, we have one tire from the right wheel well at Kennedy. I’m told we have found the other and it is en route. We also have the nose gear tires at Kennedy at the moment.

Let me talk about tanks. We’ve recovered at least 25 of the approximately 35 tanks that were internal to the fuselage, and these are at Kennedy. There are also a number of tanks that are reported to be en route to Kennedy, and there are also pieces of tanks that are on the shelves where we store components that have yet to be identified.

So before this task is completed, it certainly appears that we will have recovered almost all of the tanks, if not all of them.

We also mentioned the right landing gear door. There will be a picture of this on the web site soon, as well. We have recovered almost all of the right side landing gear door, and in very large size pieces. I think there are actually three pieces which represents a significant portion of the door. We also have three pieces that appear to make up the length of the inboard side of the left landing gear door frame. Now, other than these three pieces, we have not identified any structural components from the left landing gear door. It is possible, however that we have some tiles from the door surface, but we haven’t been able to specifically identify them as tiles from the door surface.

I’m going to move to the leading edge of the left wing. We have identified at least one piece from 16 of the 22 leading edge systems. These are either pieces of the reinforced carbon-carbon, the RCCs or of the structural components that attach them to the wing spar, and those are made of stainless steel. In some cases we have pieces of both. We ran some tests this weekend on RCC panel number nine, or at least a portion of it, and there was a slag on the inside of that RCC panel, which we tested and it shows deposits of aluminum and stainless steel.

Let me just say that our job is just beginning. What we will be doing is trying to follow the heat–and I’m going to say that again–what we have to do is follow the heat. We will be doing this in order to back into the location of the original breach in the wing. Now, we’re going to be using all the tools at our command, including aerodynamic and thermodynamic computer models, and we’ll be using wind tunnel testing to do that. And, of course, we will also use a sizable amount of the telemetry, which is available to us.

With regard to the telemetry, we have some issues. We can be fairly certain of the times when sensors went off-line, but we are a little bit less certain about the timing; that is in the current time line when sensors went off nominal. So we’ll have to be a little bit careful about how we read those.

The debris that has been located is mostly from very late in the event, and it came from the breakup of the shuttle or just prior to the breakup. The debris, of course, that would be most helpful would be the ones from the earlier sightings of debris shedding over California, Nevada and Utah. And as you’re aware, we haven’t confirmed any debris from these areas yet.

So to summarize, I think it’d be fair to say that we have more questions than answers right now, but we’re getting smarter fast and I believe that there’s a very good chance that we will, in fact, be able to localize the breach that occurred in the left wing. We certainly need to do this in order to determine the cause of the accident, and until we have determined that location of the breach, every postulated cause of the accident is really just a theory.

GEHMAN: Mr. Wallace?

WALLACE: Our group is group two, any way you count us, we’re not in order, proof that we’re not ourselves rocket scientists on the board.


Part | 1 | 2 | 3 |

SpaceRef staff editor.