Status Report

Transcript (Part 1): Hearing on the Space Shuttle Columbia Investigation Before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation 14 May 2003

By SpaceRef Editor
May 26, 2003
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CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Good morning. Today’s hearing is the second in a series of hearings to examine the causes of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. I welcome Administrator O’Keefe and Admiral Gehman, and look forward to hearing from them on the status of the investigation, including the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s most recent recommendations, and NASA’s plan to return the Space Shuttle Flight Program to flight.

It is extremely important that the Congressional Oversight Committees have access to all critical information in this investigation, and I want to fully impress that fact on our witnesses. I repeat, it’s extremely important that Congressional Oversight Committees have access to all critical information in this investigation.

In addition to the Columbia accident, we’ll also discuss NASA funding concerns. I’m greatly troubled over the increasing pattern of Congressional earmarking, and we may learn that the funding directives to members’ priority projects at the expense of NASA’s own funding priorities have led to grave consequences.

Congressional earmarking of NASA funding increased from $24.7 million for fiscal year 1998 to $167 million in fiscal year 2003. A 576 percent increase in NASA earmarks. Examples of such earmarking, which have prevented NASA from allocating funding to programs that it considered to be most critical, include $15.5 million for the Institute for Scientific Research, in Fairmont, West Virginia; $7.6 million for hydrogen research being conducted by the Florida State University system; $2.25 million for the Life Sciences Building at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island; $1.8 million for the construction of a Gulf of Maine laboratory at the Gulf of Maine Aquarium Foundation; and $1.35 million for expansion of the Earth Science Hall at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, Maryland. These are just a few of the egregious earmarks that have little or nothing to do with NASA, or certainly its core mission.

While the level of Congressional earmarks have grown, NASA’s overall budget has remained relatively stable. As a result, NASA has been forced to do more with less money, while facing deteriorating infrastructure and safety concerns.

I’d like to hear from Administrator O’Keefe and Admiral Gehman, and learn their views on how this pork barrel spending may have affected NASA operations, including the Space Shuttle Program. In addition, I’m concerned that it appears that NASA tries to curry favor with a broad base of members, by trying to ensure that programs affect as many states as possible, even when this may not be the most effective or productive use of resources.

Even more remarkable is when NASA funds a $900,000 Computing, Information, and Communications program for mobile wireless and broadband Internet capability that had been, according to NASA’s fiscal year 2003 operations plan, inadvertently dropped as an earmark from the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Conference Report. I urge the Administrator to conduct a thorough review of all NASA’s funding plans to ensure they are oriented to meet the legitimate needs of NASA’s missions.

Other important issues that need to be examined today include NASA’s culture, and the concerns of NASA employees about Columbia’s safety, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and why it was not used to take on on-orbit images of the Columbia. We have heard conflicting stories on that particular aspect of the Columbia tragedy, and we hope that will be cleared up.

The impact of the Columbia accident on the construction of the International Space Station, the safety of the Soyuz, which is currently the only transport to and from the space station, and Congressional access to privileged information from the CAIB investigation.

I look forward to an informative hearing this morning and, again, thank the witnesses for appearing today.

Senator Hollings.

SENATOR ERNEST HOLLINGS (D-SC): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I’ll just file my prepared statement, with the only comment to the effect that you’ll get an informed hearing. The distinguished Chairman has just allowed that we expect at the Congressional level to receive all statements, all materials, and everything else of that kind. And he more or less gives that command like he’s still in the Navy, but that isn’t what’s happened.

As I understand from the news reports, you’ve given confidentiality to those giving statements, to make darn sure that the Congress doesn’t receive all materials of the investigation. So, point one, I’m disturbed about the investigation itself because, we went through with this in the Challenger and it looks like the same act, same scene, with no regard for safety in the Columbia thing.

But, I’ll just leave it at that and we’ll have some questions.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Thank you, sir.

Senator Sununu.

SENATOR JOHN SUNUNU (R-NH): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Welcome Administrator O’Keefe and Admiral Gehman. Looking forward to the testimony. I know there’s been a tremendous amount of work done. And I think, at the very least, we owe a great deal of thanks to all of the personnel that have been on the ground, volunteers, I mean literally thousands of them working hours and hours and hours, to make sure that, to the best of our ability we have as much material as possible to draw sound conclusions from — through the investigation. So, welcome and I look forward to your testimony.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Senator Wyden.

SENATOR RON WYDEN (D-OR): Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

I too want to welcome our witnesses and thank them for their cooperation. There are a number of areas I want to explore this morning. One involves the preliminary recommendations that have been received from the Accident Investigation Board.

The two preliminary recommendations, one calls for the comprehensive inspection plan to determine the structural integrity of the reinforced carbon-carbon system components, and the second is to modifying NASA’s agreement with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency to use satellites to make on-orbit imaging for each Shuttle flight a standard requirement.

When I learned about these two recommendations — and I recognize these are both preliminary — what really struck me is, why weren’t these recommendations put in place prior to the tragedy? And I think this would be an area that I’d want to explore with you, Administrator O’Keefe. Because, you just say to yourself, you know, it seems really tragic that current inspection techniques are not adequate to assess the structural integrity of the carbon-carbon supporting structure and attaching hardware. And I think my questions in this area would be two-fold. One, why wasn’t it done before the tragedy and, second, what’s being done to implement the recommendations?

The other area, Mr. Chairman, that I want to look at, is this question of the way technical analyses are used by the agency. And of course, the concern here is, it’s been reported widely in the press that NASA, you know, managers refused to seek the photographs of the damaged Shuttle, and the engineers were making pleas that it be done. And I recognize this deals with the memorandum that you all sent to the Committee, but I think I’d like to explore this some more as well, and will be asking about that, Administrator O’Keefe.

But, Mr. Chairman, I’m glad you’re doing this. To me, there really isn’t anything more important than the oversight function of the United States Congress. And I appreciate the fact that you’re bringing us here on a host of the key issues, to look at these matters. And I look forward to our witnesses.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Thank you, Senator Wyden.

Senator Allen.

SENATOR GEORGE ALLEN (R-VA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for having this hearing. And Administrator O’Keefe and Admiral Gehman, thank you for appearing before this Committee and, more importantly, I want to commend you for your tireless, your honest, and your open efforts in the last three-and-a-half months since this disaster occurred.

Briefly, I’d like to make three points. First, Admiral Gehman and Administrator O’Keefe, I think you all have done an outstanding job in responding to the concerns of Congress and responding to our concerns, in so far as the Investigation Board and its independence from NASA. When one looks at this tragedy, compared to that of the Challenger, the Columbia investigation, in my view, is certainly more expeditious and certainly more forthright. Not to criticize the other, but I think you’ve made a substantial, significant, and noticeable improvement in that openness, forthrightness and the speed in which you’re sharing that information and getting on it. I think that those efforts are helping us and you all, to find the underlying and contributing causes of this tragedy.

Secondly, I want to echo and underscore previous comments about NASA’s Human Space Flight Program. Virtually every aspect of NASA depends on the success of the Shuttle and the Human Space Flight Program. Generally, I look at space flight as a means to a greater end, which is research and discovery and exploration. And I know the brave crew of the Columbia engaged in a wide variety of scientific research and, in fact, research that only could be done in space.

I truly believe that if anything good can come out of this tragedy, it would be a reinvigorated focus on NASA and its primary mission of scientific research that actually benefits people here, life here on this planet. Some of the comments of the Chairman, in my view, to the extent you end up funding extraneous matters that are not the primary focus of NASA, diminishes that capability.

Now finally and thirdly, I have previously raised concerns about NASA, in the area of one of its primary functions, which is aeronautics and also, in so far as space is concerned, the advancements in technology. Specifically, embracing some of the advancements in nanotechnology, that I know Senator Wyden shares my views on, as well as automation and robotics, that could potentially minimize the risks associated with human space flight.

I’m interested in learning any specific areas where NASA is embracing some of these advancements in automation and robotics, which I believe are essential for us here now in Congress, as well as NASA, to work together to get that right balance of humans, as well as the advancements in robotics and automation, to function in these scientific research projects that are done in space.

And I thank you, Mr. Chairman for having this hearing and thank both gentlemen for your leadership.


Senator Breaux.

SENATOR JOHN BREAUX (D-LA): Thank you Mr. Chairman.

Very briefly, I think that it’s good that we’re having this hearing. Out of the tragedy of the Columbia, hopefully can come some good. And hopefully the good will be an assessment of where we are and where we need to be, what steps need to be taken to make sure that the launch vehicles for future flights are safe, dependable. And I think that, hopefully, we can start focusing in on what we need to do to meet the needs of the future, after we determine the reasons for the accident itself.

One of the things that’s given me great concern is that there’s no replacement vehicle for the Space Shuttle. Not only is there not a replacement vehicle, there’s not even anything on the drawing board. And if somebody came to the administrator tomorrow with the best designs for a new vehicle, it would take a substantial amount of time to put that vehicle into construction and, ultimately, into use. I mean, these are 15, 20-year projects, at the very least.

And right now, I think the failure of all of us, is that we have not made preparation for what’s going to come after the Shuttle. It’s not a one-week proposition. It’s a 15, 20 year proposition and right now there’s nothing on the drawing boards. And I think there’s probably a lot of fault to go around for all of us, as to why that is the situation.

But, we thank our witnesses this morning.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Thank you, Senator Breaux.

I want to thank Administrator O’Keefe and Admiral Gehman for their outstanding work. We’ll have some tough questions, and I hope we can have some meaningful exchanges, but none of that, I believe, will diminish the respect and appreciation that we have for both of you and your service to this nation. We thank you.

Administrator O’Keefe, begin with you, please.

MR. SEAN O’KEEFE: Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Committee. Much has happened, I guess, since we last had an opportunity, February 12th, for this Committee and the Joint Committee, which is the House Science Committee, to discuss the specific aspects of the Columbia tragedy.

First and foremost, over the course of the six weeks after the tragedy, I have personally attended nine separate memorial services and every funeral, which I am still stunned by the extraordinary effort that the Air Force, and the Navy particularly, went to, to render full honors to all of the members of the Crew of Columbia. It was an extraordinary effort and I think it honored and respected their memory in an extraordinary way.

The recovery effort that occurred over the course of the last 100 days was equally impressive. And one that I don’t think anybody expected we would recover much more than about 10 percent of the orbiter. Instead, over the course of that time, better than 20,000 people in 200 different federal, state, and local agencies and departments from the state of Texas, the state of Louisiana, the various communities, as well as the federal government, conducted the most impressive inter-agency, inter-governmental recovery effort that has ever been recorded.

And, in the course of that time, there was no less than about 6,000 people in the east Texas, west Louisiana area that were engaged actively, every single day, in working through an area that’s depicted on this particular chart, from a little southeast of Dallas, Texas, into Vernon Parish in Louisiana. That’s the equivalent of 250 miles and about 10 miles wide, that’s the equivalent in acreage the size of the state of Rhode Island.

And the teams from NASA, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and countless state and local agencies and departments, literally walked every single acre of that area and recovered now what is the better part of about 40 percent of the orbiter, and which is equivalent to about 83,000 pounds of the — 83,000 tons, excuse me, of the orbiter itself, which has now been shipped to the Kennedy Space Center.

Our activities in that area demonstrate, I think, some of the most remarkable efforts at inter-agency cooperation that is a model for how that cooperative effort can be conducted in pursuit of a common objective. In ways that there were absolutely no — and every single trip I made to the area, was stunned to see that there were absolutely no conflicts between and among agencies, between state and local officials.

The federal Emergency Management Agency conducted the primary coordination of that effort, but it was one that required little cooperative instance or instigation on their part. It was extremely well handled, and one that we’re extremely proud of. And thankful to the Governor of the state of Louisiana and the Governor of the state of Texas, for their extraordinary contributions as well as cooperations as we worked through this.

This particular land area, I think is, I guess, in the category of remarkable developments as well, is occupied by about 400,000 citizens. And stunningly, in as much as this was tragic and horrific through a loss of seven very important lives, it is amazing that there were no other collateral damage happened as a result of it. No one else was injured. All of the claims have been very, very minor in dealing with these issues.

But, an awful lot of debris was recovered and the wreckage itself has been, again, now reassembled in large measure at the Kennedy Space Center, which is informing the investigation in ways that we are exceeding our expectations in many respects. I’ll certainly defer to Admiral Gehman on his commentary on that point.

As it pertains to the cooperation with the Board itself, it has been — there is no element of what they may desire or require or need that we have denied. And indeed, our effort has been to cooperate with the Board on each and every issue that is necessary, in order to reach a common objective, which is to determine the truth; find the facts and the evidence to support exactly what happened, and how we may go about the process of fixing it and return to flight safely as soon as we can.

In that regard, the return to flight efforts that we have engaged in is, rather than wait for the final report to beg released, as Senator Breaux alluded and Senator Wyden as well, there are a series of recommendations that the Board has released as findings and recommendations thereafter, that we are beginning to implement now, rather than waiting for that activity to be in its totality.

Our effort is to follow the better than nine separate public hearings that have been conducted, as well as the public commentary that has been offered by the Board, in order to inform the kind of approaches we need to take to return to flight expeditiously, but safely in doing so.

So there are a range of different recommendations and findings that they have come up with, that we are beginning now to implement, and will continue throughout the course of their activity to engage in that activity as rapidly as we possibly can.

Finally, I do want to thank the Board members for their diligence, their literally six, seven day a week activity that they’ve conducted for the past 100 days. They were appointed and assembled on the very first day of the accident, and have been unceasing in their efforts since then to find the truth and to find the evidence to support what happened on that day so that we may make those corrections and move on to safe flight again.

In particular, I want to thank Admiral Gehman, who responded to my call hours after that terrific accident, and pulled him out of retirement, blissful, I think, retirement, in which he certainly had lots of other things to do than return to public service in this situation, and has been relocated to Houston, Texas for the entire three-month period since that time. And has conducted what I think is a very thorough effort to date at this point.

I thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the (inaudible).


Admiral Gehman.

ADMIRAL HAROLD GEHMAN: Good morning, Mr. Chairman, Senator Hollings, members of the Committee. I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you this morning. Rather than read my statement, I’ll just ask that it be entered into the minutes and I’ll –.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: — Without objection.

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: Thank you very much. And I’ll just make a couple of brief points, then we can get on to the business.

First of all, I would like to introduce a couple of my fellow board members, who are here today. Seated behind me is Mr. Steve Wallace, the Chief of the Aviation Safety Division of the FAA, and Dr. John Logsdon from George Washington University, who is in the Chair of the Space Policy Institute. And also my — the real strength behind my move to Houston, my wife is sitting behind me, too, Senator McCain.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Welcome, Mrs. Gehman. Thank you for your service.

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: Members of the Committee, I am delighted to appear before you and answer all of your questions fully and completely on any matter that you would like to hear about. I have to say, however, that this report is not written. And I will be delighted to give you my personal opinion, but this is a Board, 13 members, some of whom feel very strongly about some of these matters, and I don’t want to overstate or get ahead of my headlights here.

Many of the things that you’re interested in, the Board has not decided upon. So, I’ll have to caveat my answers by when I know that the Board is comfortable with a subject, or when the Board hasn’t even addressed the subject yet, and then give you my personal opinion. So, if you’ll excuse me for that caveat right at the beginning, that I’m delighted to give you an interim report, but we haven’t written this report yet.

The intent of our Board is to provide you with an independent analysis and an independent review of, not only this accident and what caused it, but also a deep, rich, complete and intrusive inquiry in the entire Manned Space Flight Program.

The goal of our Board is to hit the target. The target is determined by you, the members of Congress. And in my dialogue with members of Congress, which I have found very helpful, I have noticed that the target tends to move a little bit, which is perfectly all right. And it’s that dialogue which allows me to adjust my aim and adjust my sights, so that we meet your requirements.

Several members of Congress have indicated to me that, when my work is finished, yours is just beginning. And please don’t hand me a half-baked loaf, and I understand that.

Our intent is to give you a complete, rich, deep review of this program. A review which has not been conducted before by any other board. And, in order to do that, we are using some old, well-proven, tested tools, that get into the culture and the attitudes and the processes and the management and the climate, that cannot be gotten into by any other way.

Mr. Chairman, you as a Naval aviator are very familiar with the safety review process that’s used in several agencies, and we have found over the years that that’s the process that allows you to get a look at an organization that you cannot get by any other process.

So, you really have two investigations in one here. You have an accident investigation, what happened, that’s being done in complete public, with full disclosure, public hearings, interim recommendations, lots of press conferences, plenty of oversight. And then we have a safety investigation, which is being conducted in accordance with procedures that have been set up by several agencies in the Executive Branch, which allows you to get the kind of look which you cannot get any other way.

It is the opinion of the board that that will allow us to write a report, which will be of aid to the Congress, in a way that no other review of NASA has ever given you before. And it cannot be done any other way, in our opinion.

The Board is fully aware of the oversight responsibilities of Congress. We’re fully aware of your requirements. And we are meeting right now — our staffs are meeting right now, to find a way to fully meet all of your requirements in some fashion or another, which I’m advised, you know, I’m not an expert at this, that these processes have been worked out between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch many times before. And there are processes to allow you complete access to anything you want to see. So, until we agree on all that those processes are, I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. But I don’t see this as a problem, meeting the oversight responsibility to Congress in a way that’s satisfactory to you.

Meanwhile, the Board wants to hold onto this tool, which is going to give you a better product, and a product that you will not have had the advantage of having before. Enough said on that.

This Board is completely independent, contrary to some of the — I’ve got to watch my words here — headlines of the past. NASA does not pay our salaries. You pay our salaries. The Congress enacted a $50 million grant to conduct this investigation. NASA keeps the books for me, but I spend that money. So, somehow suggesting that members of this Board are influenced by the book — by the way the records are kept, I find to be somewhat naive.

I also would like, on behalf of the Board, to recognize and acknowledge the work of the thousands and thousands and thousands of volunteers who have spent weeks and weeks walking through the state of Texas, picking up debris. This serves two purposes, one which is a public safety purpose because some of this debris is hazardous. And to get it up and out of the ground and out of the streets and schoolyards and public places is very important.

The second point that I would make is that it turns out that the analysis of this debris and the reconstruction of this debris has been very important to this Board’s work. It turns out it was more important than we ever thought it would be. We have learned a lot of things from analyzing and learning from the debris. So, it turns out that that work turned out to be more critical and more important than we thought it would be at the first, and we owe a great debt of gratitude to a whole lot of people who are never going to get their names in the paper and their pictures on the paper. So, I would like to second that, too.

Let’s see. And I think that, with the exception of the points that I make in my prepared statement, I think that I best could serve this Committee if I stopped and responded to the questions.

Thank you for the opportunity, Mr. Chairman.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Thank you. Thank you both. There’s several issues that I’d like to address and may have to have subsequent rounds. But the first issue I want to discuss with you concerns the issue as to whether satellite photos could have been taken of the Columbia and, if so, would it have mattered in helping prevent this tragedy?

Now, here’s what happened from my standpoint. I was notified shortly after the tragedy, in the most highly classified fashion, that the National Imaging and Mapping Agency had offered to take satellite photos of the Columbia in order to ascertain whether, if any or the extent of damage, as a result of the foam striking the capsule on launch, as we all know.

Now, I was originally briefed that the offer was rebuffed by NASA, and that the offer had been made on a couple of occasions. I consulted Senator Hollings, and we discussed it and sent a letter to Administrator O’Keefe and — asking for information concerning this situation. It is still not clear to me what happened, who’s responsible, and whether a picture or imaging could have been rendered if it had been given sufficient priority, which may have provided information that would have at least alerted NASA and people on board Columbia that there was a significant problem.

So, Admiral Gehman, you may not have reached any conclusion on that yet. This may be one of those, but I’d like to hear information from both you and Mr. O’Keefe, beginning with you, Administrator O’Keefe.

MR. O’KEEFE: Yes, sir. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I am certainly going to be a bit circumspect in the response, given how chary the intelligence community is about discussing the full extent of the quality of the imagery that is made available, or the products that are available from the intelligence community. But, as we have discussed –.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: — Could I just remind you, Senator Hollings and I communicated to you in a classified fashion. It wasn’t until the information was in the media that we felt free to discuss this issue.

SpaceRef staff editor.