Status Report

Columbia Accident Investigation Board Press Briefing May 28, 2003 (part 3)

By SpaceRef Editor
June 1, 2003
Filed under ,

LT. COL. WOODYARD: We’re going to go to our phone bridge.

A REPORTER: I’ve been out of the country for a couple of weeks. So I hope this isn’t something you’ve already dealt with. Just a question on the nuts and bolts of the organization of the final report. Do you know yet how many chapters there will be and what the subject matter will be of the different chapters?

ADM. GEHMAN: No, I don’t know exactly. I can tell you that it’s going to be a very, very thick report and that it will be in narrative form. That is, it’s going to start off: "Once upon a time." I mean, it starts off at the beginning, and it’s going to be a multi-layered report. That is, you’ll be able to have a beginning where it has a very high-level, cursory discussion of something and then you just keep going and it gets down to the next layer and you keep going and it gets down to a very, very detailed engineering layer. I also know that you’re going to kind of have to read the report to pull the recommendations out. It’s not going to be a comic book kind of report. Other than that, we’re going to try to make it easy to read, in the sense that each chapter will be kind of a stand-alone chapter. You’re not going to have to be flipping back and forth to appendices and things like that to find things. Whatever charts and graphs and pictures that we refer to will be right there in the text. But it will be a thick report. It will be voluminous; and, as I indicated a long time ago, it is intended to be the baseline for a very serious public policy debate on the future of the safety of the shuttle program and its role in the manned space flight program.

A REPORTER: Is the beginning the scenario, or is the beginning the overview of what then leads to the scenario?

ADM. GEHMAN: It’s going to start with the 1960’s decision to build the space shuttle. It starts at the beginning. It’s a narrative: "Once upon a time."

A REPORTER: NBC. Admiral, you were talking a while ago about the fact that you will not be able to come out at this juncture and say it was definitely the foam that caused the breach in the wing, most likely cause. We were talking a while back about the fact that when Columbia was modified back in ’99 out at the Palmdale plant that the people out there had difficulty in getting the RCCs and the T-seals on straight on the left wing of Columbia. In fact, they couldn’t do the job and they had to call some old troops back in that did it before to get the RCCs and the T-seals aligned.

Now, have you ruled out the fact that that could have caused some kind of stress on the system itself, weakening of it, that you might have had a T-seal that finally went on this second flight after it was modified out there? Where does that stand?

ADM. GEHMAN: There will be a section of the report on the subject of the strength and the integrity and the pedigree of the left wing. We are aware of that incident. I think that Group 1 has looked into it in great detail. That will be in the report. It will be discussed in the report. I will point out that you kind of answered the question yourself in the sense that when they finally did it – they did have to do it twice, you’re right – but when it was finally done, it was done correctly and to spec. Therefore, we couldn’t very well say that something was damaged. But there are a whole number of things like that that we have documented in our report, a whole number of events leading up to the launch and the preparation for launch of the Columbia, all of which will be documented in the report, including that one.

A REPORTER: Earth News. For Dr. Widnall. I realize you don’t want to hang your hat on the T-seal; but looking through the ballistics charts and the radar charts, it seems like everything that’s remaining is made out of reinforced carbon-carbon material, both the T-seals and the panels. Would you be willing to at least hang your hat on that? And any thoughts about the independent analysis of that Event No. 6 piece falling off, that it has the same A over M as RCC material?

DR. WIDNALL: Well, let me take those two questions separately. I do believe that we are going to try to identify another piece of RCC panel maybe broken off and submit that as a candidate to have similar calculations done. I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. But break and then go onto the question of debris. I think sitting down and trying to put together this entire scenario, certainly Debris 6 would be a part of that, to try to analyze, you know, what is the scenario for damage, how does that affect the aerodynamics, how does that affect the heating, how did this thing make it all the way to Texas. So we need to sit down and try to construct a scenario that at least obeys the law of physics and aerodynamics.

A REPORTER: For Admiral Gehman. We look forward to your report making it to the New York Times best-seller list, and we’ve all been asking you about details. Are you going to be addressing whether or not it’s cost-effective to continue to fly the shuttle or whether or not the government should look at a replacement and whether or not the shuttle should be completely grounded until then or only flown until a replacement becomes available?

ADM. GEHMAN: Those kinds of decisions will be made by people other than us. The board will attempt to frame the discussion along those items by stating our opinion of what the real costs are and what the real risks are and what the real benefits are, but the conclusions will have to be reached by the Congress and the White House and the administrator of NASA.

A REPORTER: I just wanted to follow up on something Admiral Gehman said about how NASA would have acted had Columbia made it back safely, perhaps with some damage. I’m wondering if the board has seen any evidence that NASA was taking the bipod foam issue seriously as far as upcoming flights, whether they would have grounded the fleet or whether there were any actions in work at the time Columbia was in orbit that suggest they might have done so.

ADM. GEHMAN: General Hess can answer that question.

GEN. HESS: Our analysis in answering that question is fairly preliminary. Right now I think that we would have to proceed under the assumption that there was a very serious effort made on behalf of the program to direct a study of STS 112 foam loss. Now, realizing that STS 113 was basically a night launch and therefore ET separation happened at night, that would be really an unknown as to whether or not there was bipod foam loss on that; and faced with STS 107 and the significant piece of foam that came off and how late it came off in the ascent would lead NASA to sit up and pay attention to that particular event. Now, the decisions that they may or may not have made, we’re going to have to wait just a little bit of time before we decide whether or not we thought that that would form a constraint to flight or not.

GEN. DEAL: It’s probably also pertinent to note that they were already looking into the bipod, as General Hess has talked about. They had been given a suspense date of December, which was slipped to the 6th of February, to talk about 112; but they were already working on the bipod redesign. That was going to be part of the in-process changes on ET No. 129. So it was already in process to do that. They may have expedited it, but that’s only conjecture at this point, depending on what would have happened at the 6th of February.

A REPORTER: Washington Post. Admiral Gehman, will there be any recommendations one way or another on altering NASA’s current relationship with the contractors or any assessment of the efficacy of the current arrangement, given your findings on problems with safety and maintenance?

ADM. GEHMAN: The board will address the contract and whether or not the contract enhances safe flight or in some inadvertent way perhaps works against safe flight. I can’t comment right now on what we may say about that. We’re deeply into that right now.

There’s two issues here. One is contractor performance, which we are looking at, along with all the other performance matters. That is, we’re not make any differentiation between the performance matters as to whether the person’s a contractor or whether he’s a government person. We’re not making any differentiation about that.

The second thing is whether or not the contract is suitable for the purpose of this program. That is, we may have wonderful contractors; but the contract may actually need to be restructured. It’s far premature for me to make a comment on how we’re going to address that.

A REPORTER: National Public Radio. You mentioned a report looking at the effect of foam hitting the shuttle. You said people didn’t really sort of grasp the danger at that time. Which report was that, and what exactly did it look at?

GEN. HESS: Well, there was a hazard report done as part of NASA’s overall safety effort that connects problems in the PRACA data base with certain hazards, as well as items off of the FMEA CIL list. So the hazard report really connects all those issues. When they took a look at the issue of foam loss that dealt mostly with smaller pieces of foam hitting the acreage tile areas, did not delve too seriously into what might have happened if a strike were to be on the leading edge, as an example. And the substantiation that it was within the accepted risk dealt with issues like have a proven capability to put the foam on the external tank, that the processes were certified, that the people putting them on were expert, those kinds of things, as differentiated from empirical evidence of what would happen if you had a piece come off at 80 seconds into flight and it hit the leading edge. There was not that kind of analysis done.

I’ll have to provide the date to you. It’s been in existence for quite a while; and also in the Flight Readiness Review process to STS 113, there was a direction given to update that hazard analysis.

A REPORTER: Admiral Gehman. Florida Today. I was just wondering if you might have any interim recommendations to pass along today.

ADM. GEHMAN: Not today. We continue to work interim recommendations every week. It’s part of our weekly regime, and we’ll release them as soon as they’re ready.

A REPORTER: Discovery Channel. Admiral, how are you going to ensure that the Gehman Report doesn’t just join the already overflowing library shelves of those other blue-ribbon commissions to NASA about how to improve safety?

ADM. GEHMAN: Well, I can’t ensure that the CAIB report doesn’t just go on a library shelf; but I think that the support that we’re getting from the oversight committees in Congress, as well as the administration and the commitment by the administrator of NASA not to allow that to happen is very reassuring to the board. As you may be aware, NASA is already creating another standing independent panel, led by Tom Stafford, who is going to review NASA’s implementations of our report. So the answer to your question is, of course, I can’t guarantee how our report will be taken, but I think there’s sufficient interest in both the Congress and the White House and the administrator of NASA that this will be taken quite seriously.

A REPORTER: On a related more general note, oftentimes NASA has said that it’s the lack of funding that has kept it from implementing many of the recommendations made by ASAP and other advisory commissions. In the perhaps some examples you could cite or some of the board members could cite about how you go about making decisions, will you rank safety and costs and what needs to be taken into consideration in a complex program like the shuttle?

ADM. GEHMAN: The report has a section and we are currently working very, very hard on filling in the section on budgets and the impact of budgets. We intend to address that very deeply. There are a number of pieces in that area. There’s the overall size of NASA’s budget, which is really a reflection of the commitment of the American people to space exploration. Then there is the piece of NASA’s budget which is devoted to manned space flight, which includes the International Space Station as well as the shuttle and its replacement program. Then there is the allocation of funds within the shuttle program to various pieces of the shuttle program, including safety upgrades, safety programs, and things like that. All of that is going to be dissected in our report, and we hope that we’ll be able to make some strong recommendations and some direct recommendations on what the appropriate amount of money to run a risky program like this is.

I’m not going to tell you right now that our conclusion necessarily will be that you need more money. Don’t jump to that conclusion. But we clearly are going to attempt to have specific, direct, and unequivocal recommendations on the relationship between budgets and what it costs to operate a program like this.

A REPORTER: Admiral Gehman. Aviation Week. A question for both you and General Deal that follows on the earlier question on contracts and contractors. I want to make sure that I understand the subtleties there. Are you able to comment specifically about what concerns the board or, for that matter, heartens the board relative what you found specifically with quality assurance and quality control at United Space Alliance in the overall process and at Lockheed Martin, more specifically, with the ET?

GEN. DEAL: I can give you several general comments. It’s something that I don’t really believe we ought to be getting into right now until we’ve had the board have a chance to look at it and weigh all the data. The bottom line of all the contractor work that we have going on out there is we have a lot of dedicated, motivated people that were deeply struck when the Columbia tragedy happened, and they want to get back to business. Now, putting that aside, there’s still the processes that we’ve alluded to already about what NASA is looking at and checking the contractor on. We’ve got numbers of interviews where even the line technician for USA or for Lockheed Martin or even, for example, the USA quality inspectors say, "I sure would like another set of eyes looking at what I’m doing. I’ve done this three times this year and I would like to have someone else looking at it, just to make absolutely sure." Because this is manned space flight. They all have their hearts in the right place, as far as where they’re headed.

As far as anything being jeopardized, safety of flight, I’m not willing to jump out on that, walk that plank whatsoever, because we’ve got enough eyes looking at that. Some of the tangential issues, however, are a concern because you’ve got a lot of people that are doing the right job, you’ve got a lot of eyeballs being laid on things, but maybe not enough people because when you do these interviews, people are talking about the amount of overtime that they’re working that could be bringing some work stresses into what they’re doing. And it’s not just on the contractor’s side. It’s also on the NASA side. So that’s why, as we do this look that we’re talking about where you look at the quality program and you reevaluate are we looking at what we need to do, do we have enough people doing it, you can also address these overtime situations, as well. So in a nutshell, I think that’s it.

ADM. GEHMAN: Right. I agree with General Deal. The board has not yet fully, as a group, addressed the conclusions that come out of these issues. What I indicated to you is that they kind of fall into two broad, general categories. One is the actual on-the-floor performance of functions. That’s what General Deal was just talking about, and then the other is the contract itself, whether it’s structured rightly, correctly, to reward the kind of behavior you want and not inadvertently rewarding the wrong kind of behavior.

I’ll just give you an example, and I don’t have any knowledge or evidence on this whatsoever. If you have a contract in which you can get paid bonuses for on-time launch, well, that instills a certain kind of performance in your contractors. If you’re going to get paid bonuses for launching on time, then how many bonuses do you get for slowing the launch down? So that’s the kind of thing we need to make sure that we understand. We do not completely understand it right now, but we’ve got to make sure we understand how this contract operates and that it’s serving the program in the best way possible.

A REPORTER: Admiral Gehman. Newsday. If the board were to make recommendations on recertifying or requalifying the shuttle system, do you envision that having to take place before return to flight, or could that take place over a period of time?

ADM. GEHMAN: Well, I’ll give you a personal opinion because the board has not addressed this yet. My own personal opinion is that that would not be a return-to-flight issue. The recertification or requalification issue is related to the announced intention of NASA to fly these things for another 20 years and it’s not our charter to address that issue, but we may comment upon it just because our knowledge of this is pretty deep. So my own personal opinion is that that would not be a return-to-flight issue, even though nearly everything in the requalification list might be a one-time event; but it’s related to long-term operation of the shuttle program.

A REPORTER: Admiral Gehman. Orlando Sentinel. I wanted to ask you briefly. I know you’re aware that in 1999 Shuttle Columbia launched and had a short circuit that knocked out one of the computers that controls one of the main engines. After that, there was an extensive review of the wiring in the shuttle fleet; and, in fact, a study looked at the various conditions of wires in the front, mid-body, and aft of the orbiter and drew conclusions about the useful life that was left in those. Has the board seen any evidence or anything that suggests that the shuttle continued to fly after certain wiring had outlived its lifetime?

ADM. GEHMAN: I looked at that study and that particular fault. We are very much aware of both the computer problem caused by wiring and the study, the Harry McDonald study that came from that. We’ve looked at it very, very deeply. I look at it from a different view than the hypothesis presented in your question. I don’t know if either of my friends here have any knowledge of whether they flew another mission with those wiring problems or if they fixed it before the next flight or they fixed it during the next OPF. I don’t know. We’ll have to find out how they addressed those issues, whether they fixed them before the next flight or not; and we’ll be pleased to get that for you.

We approach that whole incident from a slightly different point of view. That’s the point of view that we’ve been talking about for an hour here. That is, how did the processes, how did NASA’s internal process react to those recommendations and how did they manage the information that they were given. In other words, how did these things happen. I must admit we are focused on a slightly different issue, but I’m sure someplace in our two tractor trailer loads of documentation we looked at how NASA treated those recommendations. We’ll get that for you.

LT. COL. WOODYARD: Any other questions from the phone bridge?

We’ll come back to Houston for one or two more.

A REPORTER: Associated Press. For either the Admiral or someone else. You said repeatedly how the foam shedding has got to be fixed. When you say that, are you limiting yourself to the bipod area or do you want the entire tank, which has been shedding on every single flight, as we’ve heard, even just a little? Does that all need to be fixed, in your mind, for a return to flight – in other words, zero foam loss from any part of the tank from here on in?

ADM. GEHMAN: That’s not how we’re approaching this question. When we look at how did NASA handle, approach, fix, disposition the foam strike, we are looking at not only the bipod ramp foam strikes but all foam strikes. Now, what our recommendation is going to be with regard to what you’ve got to fix and how soon you’ve got to fix it and all that good stuff, we’re not yet there. That would be an interim recommendation if we had known that right now. So I can’t comment on that.

GEN. HESS: One thing I would add to your thing is, as it currently stands, there is not a requirement that none of the foam will ever come off the ET, because there are levels below the orbiter where it sheds foam and it’s not going to do any harm. So it will never, "No foam will be lost"; but we do have to address the context of those pieces in places where it could come off and actually do harm to the orbiter and potentially the crew, wherever it might be from.

ADM. GEHMAN: Wherever. Right. Ken’s exactly right. It’s not a requirement that the ET not shed foam, but it is a requirement that Thou shalt not touch the TPS, the thermal protection system. That’s a requirement. And there’s a couple of offenders to it. There’s foam and ice, just general foam and ice, and then there’s the bipod ramps. We are looking at how the processes of NASA need to absorb that and how do they take action to fix it. Now, how the board speaks on the subject of what you’ve got to fix before you can fly again, we aren’t there yet. So I can’t comment on that.

GEN. DEAL: Just a footnote to that. The bipod ramp discussion is really a matter of academic discussion now because that bipod ramp will never see the vacuum of space again. Within about a week and a half, we will have some type of new design that NASA is saying this is what we’re going to do from now on.

A REPORTER: For Dr. Widnall. I realize, as you mentioned, you’ve been to these news conferences before and tomorrow people will report that it was definitely a T-seal that showed up in the data. Getting back to your question of how did it make it to Texas, I assume from what you’ve said that you are going to possibly test a large piece of just an RCC panel since that is still an option.


A REPORTER: Do you think, based on your knowledge of this at this point, could the thing have re-entered with a 6-inch-wide hole in an RCC panel and make it to Texas? I mean, does the T-seal not make more intuitive sense for a small breach that got worse as you proceeded versus starting with a really big hole in the wing?

DR. WIDNALL: I mean, that is part of the analysis; but the total area of a T-seal and its effectiveness as a source of heat entry is pretty substantial. You know, that is an analysis that’s going on right now. I mean, the modeling that’s going on is various sizes of round holes plus slots, slits.

I’m starting to think of this. It isn’t just one event. There are multiple events. There’s the initial heat that comes in from, say, a preexisting damage to the leading edge. Then that seems to damage some internal structure. Then debris, fairly early, begins to come off. Well, once debris from the leading edge comes off, there’s an additional way that high-temperature gas can get onto the wing. So I’m starting to think about it in terms of Heat Event 1 and Heat Event 2, and I want to know whether the time scales make sense. Once debris begins to come off, then you have aerodynamic effects and one piece of debris coming off – I mean, the wind tunnel tests seem to show that a fairly large section of, let’s say, Panel 9 – and don’t quote me – coming off, would give you some explanation for the temperature rise on the OMS pod, which is another bit of data.

So putting all these wind tunnel tests together, forming some kind of scenario, if you had a fairly large piece of RCC coming off at the time at which the temperature rise on the OMS pad began, then what kind of heat input would that make to the spar of the leading edge and what’s the time scale between that and getting to loss of control which we know occurred over Texas? So it’s that development of a detailed scenario. And what does Rogers say about the debris? You know, what was heat damage? What about this chemistry of metal deposits on the inside of various RCC panels, attachment fittings melting. So we need to sit down and kind of march through a time line and in sort of analytical building blocks to explain this.

ADM. GEHMAN: Let me follow up on her comment here. We’ve got Dr. Osheroff sitting here now and Dr. Widnall. Between the two of them, there’s nobody smarter in the country on this. I tell you personally I am very, very slow to build a mental plot of how this heat, you know, how big a hole and how the heat got in there. The reason for that is every time we hear a report on this, the physics of this move around a little bit.

For example, it’s well known that the orbiters have returned to earth very, very safely with an entire tile missing and there’s aluminum under there and that 6-inch-by-6-inch hole was subjected to 2750 degrees or 2500 degrees or whatever it was subjected to and the aluminum held up just fine. What all that means is that the boundary layer, whereas it was deflected a little bit because of some tile, it was not deflected enough for the heat flux to actually get at the aluminum. So this is pretty complicated, and it depends on the shape of the hole, the place of the hole, remembering that the orbiter is coming in at 40 degrees cocked up to its velocity angle. So it’s not a wing like we think in which the leading edge is really on the leading edge. So I personally am slow to try and concoct in my mind the mechanical scenario, for all the reasons Sheila just mentioned, that there’s all these complicating factors.

Now, what she and her folks are trying to get at is they’re trying to build a thermal map that indicates how much heat and how fast the heat gets in there to satisfy that requirement. I tell you, I am slow to adopt any kind of a 4-inch hole, 6-inch hole, T-seal hole, slit, round, square. I’m kind of slow to fall in love with anything.

DR. WIDNALL: We’re just basically looking for what I would call internal consistency. You know, can we develop a credible picture of what happened that agrees with the data as well as the analysis.

A REPORTER: Just based on where you stand today, do you expect to be able to do that by the end of July?

DR. WIDNALL: Well, again, I think the Admiral said it very well. We’re not trying to do it to what I would call engineering precision. We’re just trying to make sure that the scenario is credible, kind of what I would call a little better than an order of magnitude analysis, but we don’t want to postulate things that obviously couldn’t have been true. We’re looking for credibility.

A REPORTER: USA Today. For the Admiral. You said earlier that there may have been a switch from proving it was safe to fly to having to prove it wasn’t. Did that happen only at the top level, in other words, at the Flight Readiness Review, or did that percolate down; and when do you think this started happening, since there was such an emphasis after Challenger of proving it was safe to fly?

ADM. GEHMAN: You’re asking me for board conclusions now, and you’ll have to read it in the record. That was speculation on my part, and whether or not we can prove that remains to be seen.

A REPORTER: LA Times. If this were a murder mystery, you might have a witness saying, "I saw the accused fire a gun at the victim," and you might have another witness who was an emergency room doctor saying, yes, the witness came in with a hole in the stomach and that’s where he was bleeding from. A lot of juries would say that’s circumstantial evidence, enough to go beyond a reasonable doubt. So I’m trying to understand. You now have photographic analysis that shows a piece of foam hit the wing in a certain spot, you have this whole other body of analysis, thermal and aerodynamic, which suggests the breach occurred at the spot where you think the foam hit, and you may very well have test data that shows that a foam could actually break a piece of the RCC. That’s a pretty strong circumstantial case, but you’re saying you can’t really be definitive about it. I’m wondering what’s the caution there.

ADM. GEHMAN: I would caution you because I don’t agree with your analogy. We do, indeed, have witnesses that saw someone shoot a gun, but the problem is we don’t have a hole. We have a patient that died, but we don’t know why he died. There is where the analogy breaks down.

We have an unhappy outcome and we have an unhappy beginning but we can’t – if I had a picture of a hole or if we came back and we found a piece of RCC on the ground someplace that had a curve in it or something like that, I might change my mind, but as you well know in this area where we are projecting the breach occurred, we have no RCC. I mean, it’s all burned away. Now, you’ve got to wait for the report to come out to determine how – this may be 12 to 1 here in which everybody says, no, "The foam did it," in which case that will be the way the report reads. We’ll see how it turns out.

LT. COL. WOODYARD: Thank you. That concludes our briefing. The board members will be here. We ran a little over. So we’ll only have about five or ten minutes. Thank you very much.

(Press conference concluded at 11:26 a.m.)

SpaceRef staff editor.