Status Report

Transcript of NASA Press Conference with Linda Hamm, Phil Engelauf, and LeRoy Cain (part 4)

By SpaceRef Editor
July 23, 2003
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MR. HERRING: Marsha?

QUESTIONER: In the few days after the accident, many of the — Ron Dittimore [inaudible] people from Washington kept saying how the crew was being kept abreast of every little development during the flight about [inaudible], engineering analysis, and that is certainly a disconnect to reality. Were people that badly informed?

Also, every mission, you read the execute packages, and there are all these little nits and all these little minor, seemingly minor and big things, and yet, this one, you say was would never have even been mentioned if reporters hadn’t been curious, and I just don’t understand. Doesn’t the crew have a right, a moral right to know about problems being worked, even if they might be later proved not to be a real problem?

MS. HAM: I am going to let you answer the last half of that question, Phil, but for the first part, I can’t really speculate on what Ron was thinking when he did his press conferences or whoever else that you were referring to.

QUESTIONER: I think General Kostelnik and maybe Bill Readdy even. There were quite a few people saying the crew had been kept abreast of everything.

MS. HAM: You will have to speak to them about what they were referring to in their press conference, but I will tell you that Ron and I, we talk every day. We do during missions. We do when we don’t have missions. It is several times a day, no matter where he is or where I am. We communicate all the time, and every — most everything I know about what is happening during the mission, he does know.

Now, about execute package and the other information the crew gets, I will let Phil answer that.

MR. ENGELAUF: I got a flavor of the question, that somehow people believe that we on the ground thought there was something gravely wrong with the vehicle, but kept it from the crew. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reason we didn’t do anything different than what we talked about here today is because we did not believe that there was anything seriously wrong with the vehicle, certainly nothing that the crew could have any impact on in the sense of taking any action. We weren’t going to send folks out to do tile repair because we didn’t think — I mean, we didn’t have tools to do anything, but we also thought that that was going to be a ground turnaround thing.

When you talk about the really trivial things that you see in the execute packages, the typical standard is if there is anything that affects either telemetry that the crew is going to have insight into when they call up a display, even if it is a redundant transducer that has failed offscale low and doesn’t affect anything, if they might ever call up a page on the computer and see a bold “L” for offscale low next to that transducer, we will call and tell them even if it is something that they can’t see. But if they ever had to select an alternate system, they might see something different in the performance or they might want to be aware that we have limited capability on a certain function, even if it is not the primary function. We put that in the failure impact workaround summary, everything that is wrong.

In this particular case, if we told the crew to look out the window, there was nothing to see because we believed that any damage was on the bottom of the vehicle. We were very certain that if the crew had looked out the window and seen anything wrong with the top of the vehicle, we would know about it and we wouldn’t have to tell them, they would be telling us.

We just did not believe that there was anything that we could tell the crew that they could do anything with, and at the time, we had no indication or belief that we were — that there was anything here that was going to affect the crew, even in the long run.

QUESTIONER: So was part of it, then, you didn’t want to unnecessarily worry them and have them distracted?

MR. ENGELAUF: With a non-issue, that is exactly right, and had we not expected that they were going to then be subsequently asked a question in a press conference and not know the question, that is the more severe consequence of being asked a question you don’t know something about even if, in fact, we really don’t think it is a problem. So the fact that we anticipate that they might get some questions, we went ahead and told them because that was then the least-distracting thing was to have them know in advance that they were going to get a question like that.

QUESTIONER: And do you think this is something they are going to rethink? I mean, obviously future crews are going to want to be more on top of what is happening.

MR. ENGELAUF: Knowing what we knew at the time and in trying to translate that into a future scenario, I am still not going to tell the crew about things that I don’t think are any impact to the mission.

Another example, on STS-112 when it talks about the foam strike, in that case a piece of foam hit one of the solid rocket boosters. We never told the crew. It didn’t hit the Orbiter. It wasn’t going to affect the Orbiter. It wasn’t going to affect anything else that happened during the rest of the mission, and there was no reason to trouble the crew with that.

Given the same caliber of circumstances, I think I would do the same.

Now, are we going to turn up the gain on our sensitivity to what might be a problem or not a problem? I think that is going to be natural for every human being that works in the agency.

As was pointed out earlier, when return to flight, STS-26 was probably the most intensely
scrutinized flight we have flown, more so than even STS-1. I would probably speculate that STS-114 will be even more intensely scrutinized before, during, and after the mission.


QUESTIONER: You guys have eloquently stated your views of how this all went, and that the communications, the channels are there, and really — I mean, I am not trying to make this sound offensive in any way — it sounds like you guys are saying this system is fine, but something clearly didn’t work. So I guess I am wondering.

The board is obviously going to come out and force changes on you guys. I guess, A, is there any concern that they are going to fix things that aren’t broken? What do you guys think was broken? Because something was. And a third part of my one final question, on a completely different topic for Phil, is there — based on what you guys have said, the way information was flowing during this post — when you finally saw film, there was no way in the world you could have saved this crew. Right or wrong?

MS. HAM: I will start with the first question.

QUESTIONER: Fixing things that aren’t broken and you guys think everything is pretty good the way it is.

MS. HAM: I believe we should wait until the CAIB report comes out and find out what they are going to say, so we can fix what they have told us we need to go address.

I think we will take a good hard look at every one of the recommendations and findings. NASA and the return-to-flight team will determine how they are going to disposition each of those.

On the communication problem, most of us feel that it is open. Obviously, there was some kind of a problem because it never got from some level of engineering management to either the program. Somewhere, there was a breakdown.

We have a formal route, and you don’t have to go that route. There is an informal route. It didn’t make it until there is something we need to do about. We just need to figure out what it is.

MR. ENGELAUF: I go back even one step further. Like I said earlier, in the final analysis, every night when I go to bed, we lost STS-107. We lost the crew. We lost the vehicle. Clearly, that is not the way it is supposed to happen, and that is not what we do here.

So, no matter how you look at the arithmetic, whether you can find a mistake or not, we are getting the wrong answer, and we have to fix that. We all know that.

I will go with Linda’s answer. We are going to have to wait until we get some recommendations from people who will look at this from a different perspective than the one that we do.

It is very difficult to pinpoint the details. I think it may be even something that just isn’t obvious to us. I certainly don’t want to leave it to the easy answers and fix something that isn’t the thing that is causing the problem.

The rescue mission, I think it is an impossible question to answer. I really do. Folks have done a hypothetical case study. The precepts of that study require you to make assumptions that were not present at the time on this vehicle, on this particular mission.

They are also predicated on specific circumstances of where the next vehicle was and the flow and things like that, and I don’t think that those — you know, short of imposing a requirement, that those are going to be the generic case in all cases.

I also don’t think that you can get the right answer without all of the circumstances that were present at the time and their real adrenalin factor. Could I go over and run a simulation with a Mission Management Team and a Flight Control Team? Sure. Would it look like what would have happened on that day if we had really tried to do this? I doubt it very seriously. So I would stop short of trying to answer whether we could have saved the crew or not.

MS. HAM: But had we known that there was a catastrophic situation on orbit, we certainly would have done everything we could —

MR. ENGELAUF: Absolutely.

MS. HAM: — including, you know, is there anything we can do for the tile repair, and we certainly would have pursued rescue. There is no doubt.

MR. ENGELAUF: I don’t say we wouldn’t have tried. We pulled out all the stops, we had done everything within human capability, I don’t know whether we would have succeeded or not.

MR. CAIN: I showed up on February 1st, and really, the only job I had to do that day was to get the crew and the vehicle home safely. And we weren’t able to accomplish that.

So, similar to what Phil said, that is what we come to work to do, and I have a tremendous feeling of something went wrong in our system, in our team, in our processes, and again, as I said before, I think it is important for us. We will look forward to what the action board has to say.

I do think they have a unique perspective, and they have done a lot of really hard work with some very capable individuals, and we are going to take that work very seriously and I think we are going to learn a lot from it.

We already know some things that we want to go do to make ourselves better, and with regard to looking in hindsight, 20/20, if we had known that we had a problem while we were on orbit, I certainly agree and echo what Phil and Linda have said. We would have loved, literally, no stone unturned, and as to whether or not it would have made a difference, I think, again, as Phil said, it is an impossible question to answer, but certainly, it made for an interesting academic exercise that has raised some interest, but beyond that, I am not sure we can say much about it.


QUESTIONER: For Ms. Ham. Since the accident, as the chair of the MMT, you have received a lot of criticism, individual criticism in some cases, and have been sort of a lightning rod for a lot of the bigger pictures, criticisms that have been leveled against the organization and the NASA culture. Do you think those criticisms are unfair, and what has this been like for you personally the last few months as this whole thing has unfolded?

MS. HAM: Well, based on information that I had at the time that I made those decisions in the MMT and information that we as a team had at the time, we were really doing the best we could.

Like we said before, our goal is to launch and, of course, keep the crew safe — that is our number-one goal — and also bring the Orbiter back safely and accomplish missions, but that is our job. That is our number-one job.

I think we all take some personal responsibility for this, and I certainly feel accountable for the MMT. So it has been very difficult through this. I know that the important thing to do right now is to get the program back on their feet, get back to the flight, and get back to flight more safely than ever.

My husband being an astronaut and having two kids, we have all gone through this together.


QUESTIONER: Mark [inaudible] with the Houston Chronicle.

Boy, there was sure a lot of activity coming ahead this year after this flight with Space Station assembly, and I wondered, Phil, if you thought that the Mission Control Team was preoccupied by looking ahead, there wasn’t the kind of focus maybe on this flight that you might normally have given if that issue has arisen from time to time. Was that at all the case?

MR. ENGELAUF: I don’t perceive that to be the case.

The flight rate that we were flying in terms of historical flight rates really wasn’t all that high. Now, we have gone through some staffing-level changes over the years and that sort of thing, and we always seem to be operating pretty much at our limit and folks work hard, but that is kind of why people come to work here. We love what we do, and people are motivated and they come here and they sort of thrive on that kind of challenge to some degree.

This was a Shuttle stand-alone mission and not a Space Station assembly mission, and so I don’t think it put the same level of strain overall on the personnel and that sort of thing that sometimes we do when we are doing a joint assembly kind of mission. But I don’t perceive that has really having been a factor here at all, Mark. I really don’t.

QUESTIONER: LeRoy, really you guys have gone through a process here, and you have had to go through a very public grieving process. And you have had to keep silent for a number of reasons, waiting for the report. What has helped you through this process? How has it worked for you?

MR. CAIN: Well, I think the things that have helped me the most is really my family and the community that we surround ourselves with, both the great individuals that we have the pleasure and honor of working with here, but once we get away from here and we are just with the family and the friends and the people that we are close to, like any difficult situation, I think that has been a great help to us. For me, that includes my spiritual life as well, and that has been very important to me. So there are a number of things that me and my family specifically have been able to turn to.

With respect to the rest of my peers and our colleagues here, we, I think, have prompted each other quite a bit because we are in this together.

As you know, we enjoy the successes of this business together as a team and really more like a family than a team, and similarly, when we have problems, we deal with them sa a team and as a family. That family is our extended family, and so, at times like this, I think we have been able to help each other out. We have been able to talk about the fact that this is a difficult business to be in.

The highs are really high and the lows are really low, and that is the way it has been since the first time I walked in the control center and the first time I was a young man, was a mission control, flight controller.

I can remember leaving late at night after long 6-hour simulations, and I had made a mistake on one of the cases. I had to tell you that all the way back then is when I learned that the highs are really high and the lows are really low, but we are here because of the passion that we have for it. That extends to the rest of our peers and colleagues, and it flows out into our families and our communities. At a time like this, that becomes very important because all of those same individuals and structures that you have around you come forward to help.

So, for me personally, those things have been very important and critical, and we have a ways to go yet, but we are getting there, day by day.

MR. HERRING: One final quick one.

QUESTIONER: A question for any of the three of you who would like to answer. Rodney [inaudible] is presumably like you, a person of good intent, best of intentions. He said that he feared for his job if he pushed too hard on his concerns.

What is your level of confidence that that is an aberration, that nobody else feels the same way? If others felt the same way about bringing things forward during a mission, how would you know that?

MR. ENGELAUF: Maybe it wasn’t clear. Somebody down there in the ranks said “I am afraid to raise my hand and say, ‘Hey, boss, I am worried about this and you are not paying attention.'” He was afraid, he said. Are there others who are actually afraid? How would you know if others were afraid? How would you know if you are not getting the benefit of the people who work under you?

MR. CAIN: As I stated before, we are very serious about the culture and the environment that we foster here. It is steeped in open communication, and how do you know? The only way you know is by going around and talking to people, and we have great individuals at all levels of management who are responsible for their individual working troops. We rely on them, and the way we raise up the culture and the system, we rely on people to keep the lines of communication open.

So the only way you would know is by being in contact and in close contact with the respective levels of management, which I believe we are, but we are talking about thousands of people. I guess if I look at it that way, if it really is only a couple of people, then percentages-wise, that is pretty small, but it is more than what we want. We want that number to be zero.

So part of what we will do is go back and reexamine our practices, and we will reexamine ourselves. We will make sure in every way that we can that if there are things that we can do to ensure that that doesn’t happen that we will put those in place. We will do that, again, via opening up the lines of communication at every level, having discussions we have already had and will continue to have in the various directorates.

We have had open, if you will, all-hands meetings to talk about some of these kinds of things, to really open it up to every level and let people know, “Hey, we have had some things happen here, and we all want to put our best foot forward. So help us understand how we can do that.” So we will continue to do those kinds of things.

MR. ENGELAUF: I think I would add to that. LeRoy hit on the idea of the number of people we have here and the strength and the breadth of our organizations. That strength and numbers also comes from sort of the checks and balances system.

There are very few occasions here in this business where an entire outcome of a major situation depends on one individual who has the only right answer and everybody else in the room has it wrong.

I wouldn’t look at this case as being all of NASA was wrong except one guy who had the answer. There has to be a more fundamental structural problem with how the communication broke down here.

I don’t believe if a multitude of people disagreed with the outcome that not a single one of them is going to feel comfortable coming forward. That certainly isn’t the environment that we foster, as LeRoy indicates, with the Flight Control Team. I think that our culture of having free and open discussion before flight gets people to know each other and understand the technical issues and understand how to have those debates in a forum that isn’t threatening.

I have trouble accepting the idea that this flight failed because one individual was afraid to say something in one particular meeting.

QUESTIONER: More than one individual?

MR. ENGELAUF: I’m not sure I understand.

QUESTIONER: [Inaudible] e-mail back and forth to a variety of individuals. In hindsight, you seem quite worried about this. Is it possible that more than one individual felt too timid to come forward?

MR. ENGELAUF: If you are referring to the e-mails among the MACs discipline, I personally went and talked with the managers in that organization, not the individual themselves because if, in fact, they felt threatened, it wouldn’t do much good to go to them and say, “Gee, do you feel threatened?”

So I went and talked to their management because the flight directors have a relationship with the flight controllers, and if any one of us becomes too overbearing, we will hear about it through their management, no doubt about it.

I talked with Bob Deremus [ph] about those e-mails. We were sure that there is no lingering bunch of people down in the trenches that really had a serious concern and didn’t feel they could come forward. They truly were doing that “what if?” thing that engineers do. If you don’t have a problem to work on, you will work on the non-problems that you’ve got and you turn it inside-out and you look at it from every direction.

Here again, people seem to miss some of the details. People talking in those e-mails about the loss of a landing gear tire due to potential penetration into the wheel well, eventually we lose — you know, we had a penetration in the wheel well here, but the thing that took this vehicle out was a penetration starting up at the leading edge of the wing.


MR. ENGELAUF: So they were looking at a scenario which people purport as “Oh, that is what happened,” and I don’t think that is accurate.

They were doing what if and what happens, ultimately kind of like what they were talking about in the e-mails, but that is not what took this vehicle out of the sky.

MR. CAIN: Just to add on that real quickly, ultimately it is my understanding, anyway — and as the entry flight director, I certainly again will reiterate I wasn’t aware of any of those, anybody being concerned, and my understanding is that ultimately every person that we are aware of, every single person and individual and group and part of the team in the organization was in agreement that we didn’t have a safety-of-flight issue.

So, in the end, even those folks who — or parts of the organization, purportedly, anyway, who may have had a concern and were reluctant to raise it in the end didn’t have a concern is the way I understand it today.

MR. HERRING: Okay. We are now out of time. I want to thank you guys for being here. I want to thank all of you for coming. We appreciate it.

[End of press conference.]

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SpaceRef staff editor.