Status Report

Letter to Sean O’Keefe from Marc Cohen IFPTE Local 30

By SpaceRef Editor
August 26, 2003
Filed under ,

The Honorable Sean O’Keefe, Administrator

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

NASA Headquarters

Washington DC 20546-0001

August 20, 2003

Dear Mr. O’Keefe,

Thank-you for presenting an update on the Columbia Accident Investigation to the Ames Research Center community in a town hall meeting on July 17. On behalf of the federal employees, let me thank you for the intensity of your focus on this overriding concern. We appreciated the frankness of your presentation and your directness in answering questions.


In this letter I address the questions I posed to you and your answers to them concerning the progress of the accident investigation and NASA management’s desire for a quick return to flight. I present alternate theories for the Columbia accident that are not mutually exclusive from the foam strike theory. I discuss the question of how problems in NASA management contributed to the Columbia accident and how to fix it. Fixing NASA management will be as important as fixing the Shuttle technically.


In the question and answer session, I presented the concerns that Ames employees have brought to me about the Columbia accident investigation and the prospect of returning the space shuttles to flight. These two concerns are that NASA appears to be rushing to return to flight and that the CAIB appears to be under a great deal of pressure to come to judgment about the causes of the Columbia accident — based upon the information that is available to us. Specifically, we were quite surprised and alarmed when about a month after the accident, managers at NASA HQ and in Houston began making pronouncements about when the shuttles would return to flight (as early as November 2003), long before the results of the accident investigation would become available.
As for the CAIB itself, we recognize that it appears to be doing excellent work within the scope of its charter. We believe that our Center Director, Mr. Scott Hubbard has done a magnificent job of testing the foam impact theory, and has substantiated it as a possible theory of what caused the Columbia accident. However, we are concerned that available information does not indicate that the accident investigation is devoting an equal level of attention and testing to alternative theories.


In your response to these questions, you assured us that there is neither a rush to return to flight nor a rush to judgment in the accident investigation. Despite your assurance that there is no rush to return to flight, you still proposed a date of March or April, 2004. In my conversations with Ames employees both before and after the Town Hall Meeting, there was concern that it is still much to early to set a date. We are well aware that NASA bears the burden of supporting the Space Station, and that the last of 8 Soyuz TMs that NASA purchased is now up at the Station with Astronaut Ed Lu and Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. Under present Administration policy, it appears that it will not be possible for NASA to buy another Soyuz. This situation means that in November or December, NASA will lose its ability to support a crew on the Station or to launch a replacement crew in the absence of the shuttle. Our reaction to the various pronouncements of a date for return to flight has been one of astonishment: that it would be criminally negligent to put astronauts at risk again by defining a return to flight before we receive the CAIB report, digest its findings and recommendations, and proceed well along the path to implementing those recommendations. These pronouncements show that NASA management just does not get it. These pronouncements only lend credence to the criticism that despite all their platitudes, NASA management does not devote sufficient attention or concern to SAFETY.


In your reply, you stated that NASA will implement all the recommendations from the CAIB, and has already begun doing so as the Board released a few of its early recommendations, such as daylight-only launches and more photographs of the launch. These recommendations are all welcome and well-taken, but please bear in mind that they are the early, obvious and easy ones to implement. We expect there will be two separate sets of final recommendations. One set will concern the technical issues and will be relatively straightforward although they may prove difficult to implement. The second set will concern changes to NASA management. These changes will not be so straightforward and will be far more difficult to implement. It will not be possible to begin developing a schedule for implementation until we receive the CAIB final report and understand it and its implications for operating the Shuttle Program. What is most important, it is not fair or reasonable to expect NASA management to fix itself. The APPENDIX to this letter, below, continues the technical discussion separately.


The charter of the CAIB is framed around the challenge to return the shuttle fleet to flight. It does not charge the CAIB directly to answer the question of whether the shuttle should ever fly again, and put more crewmembers at risk, now that we have lost 40% of the fleet. That responsibility will fall to NASA as a defining question for our future. On behalf of our members, let me offer you the assistance of the Ames Federal Employees Union, IFPTE Local 30 in considering that question.


Beyond the question of return to flight is the more profound issue of how NASA management culture led to failures that contributed to the Columbia accident. I see these failures as a consequence of a long term devaluing of scientific and technical expertise within the agency. Unfortunately, NASA has developed a management culture that is too detached from the daily work and challenges of the agency’s scientific and technical “core capabilities.” Instead, a management culture has evolved that is more enamored of MBA-type “top down” assessments, irrelevant metrics and jargon; military style buzz-words and “quad-chart” viewgraphs; and social networking skills as the key to advancement and promotion. The employees I represent see this management culture as too often aloof and disinterested in the substance of the work we do, so long as we provide them with a steady stream of viewgraphs for consumption at NASA HQ. The view of NASA HQ management is that since they prize nothing more highly than “the perfect Stop 221-8 NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA 94035-1000 Post Office Box 243 Moffett Field, CA 94035-0243 3 two bullet viewgraph” that it has become nearly impossible to conduct serious technical discussions with them.

Tragically, many NASA managers appear uncomfortable with open and honest technical debate. In this context, the ways in which JSC and NASA HQ management ignored all the alerts and alarms that the technical staff sent them about Columbia are not surprising. Nor is it surprising that in assessing the foam impact, the Shuttle Program management preferred the superficial and self-serving contractor viewgraphs to expert technical analyses and opinions by NASA engineers. The NASA management culture’s devaluing of NASA technical expertise led to this tragedy. All shuttle fault trees lead to NASA management.

My officers and I would be happy to serve as a consultant to you in how to reform NASA management to help prevent future catastrophes from occurring.


Marc M. Cohen, President

Ames Federal Employees Union

IFPTE Local 30

SpaceRef staff editor.