- Status Report
- August 10, 2022
Transcript (Part 2): Hearing on the Space Shuttle Columbia Investigation Before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation 14 May 2003
MR. O’KEEFE: Oh, yes, sir. No, no. And as — in response to your joint letter, recall that immediately we responded on an unclassified basis, as well as classified information, to provide that information as well. And we’ve discussed this several times in closed session.
Nonetheless, the procedure that was followed during the course of this operation and prior, was the National Imagery and Mapping Agency had an agreement with NASA that, upon our request, they would provide products from the assets that they operate. That procedure required a level of import that had to be attached to it, whether it was routine, an emergency, urgent, you know, etc. That kind of — how serious is your problem, essentially was the nature of the MOU.
In this particular context, there was certainly the dialogue that goes on every day between NASA and NIMA, on matters of availability of assets, in which there were offers rendered, in which they asked that there be some attachment of urgency to it. Based on all of the Mission Management Team’s assessment, in that 16 day mission, their judgment was there was no safety of flight consideration. And so we certainly asked the agency to make available those products to the extent that was available and easy to do on a normal, routine basis.
Given the other priorities, which we are totally unaware of, that NIMA has and has to respond to, their judgment about exactly how that is made available, is their call. If we had said, we have an urgent matter, we need you to take — use or employ your assets for the purposes of releasing those products, they would have done so. We had no basis upon which to determine urgency. That was a judgment call. We now realize, that given the circumstances, that may have been of greater utility. But at the time, in order to meet that criteria, we would have to had put a matter of some urgency attached to it.
As a consequence of this and based on the findings and recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which was among the first two they’ve released, I have re-enjoined with General Clapper at NIMA, and have asked him specifically to let’s disregard the MOU, let’s rewrite it, and to simply make available imagery on every future operational mission, as it comes available, period, without any qualification of its urgency or emergency requirements or anything else.
The quality of that imagery of course, always depends upon a range of factors. And as a consequence, there is no comparability between each and every available product, as it were. So, as a consequence, we will get widely, or ranging degrees of quality of what may be useful in the future. But nonetheless, we will get it. And there will be no ambiguity about that procedure. That MOU is being — the Memorandum of Understanding between the two agencies has been — is in the process of being redrafted with that specific understanding between the two agencies, unambiguous.
CHAIRMAN McCAIN: You have no idea as to whether that imagery would have revealed that there was a problem?
MR. O’KEEFE: Again, without describing what the extent of their quality is, let me simply say that the — Tom Clancy novels would have us believe that the quality is extraordinary. There may not be as close to that reality as the novelists would have us believe. And on that basis, it depends on a whole range of variables. And it is purely speculation, on whether or not any of the products would have been of sufficient information to have given us any understanding. Indeed, I think Admiral Gehman’s Board investigation process, while it has not yet determined what was the cause — the initial factor that caused this — may well have been something that might not have been even determining, based on any use of any product from any intelligence source.
MR. McCAIN: I appreciate the indulgence of my colleagues. My time has expired, but I’d like to hear from Admiral Gehman, on this rather important issue.
ADMIRAL GEHMAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. You happened to hit on a good first question, because as you may know, the Board has issued a recommendation on this subject, and therefore, this is something the Board has agreed upon. My evaluation, and when we write this section, probably will be a little bit more critical than the Administrator’s description. There are a number of issues here. We will attempt to pin this issue down in our report. But there were a number of bureaucratic and administrative missed signals here. There’s no one person responsible. There are a whole lot of people responsible. The system didn’t work in this particular case. And I wouldn’t blame that on any one person.
We have listened to a lot of people and we’ve gotten quite a bit of testimony on who said what to whom, and we’ve tracked the issue, diagrammed it out. And we are a little disappointed at how the process worked. That’s why we issued this recommendation. We were a little disappointed in what some of the senior people knew and understood about how you get these images and what the images can do for you. They didn’t understand.
Some people, in decision making processes, didn’t fully understand what they were talking about here. Some cases, people made decisions based on erroneous understanding of what was happening. There were missed signals going up and there were missed signals going down too. And it’s — we’re not quite so happy with the process. We thought that there were some administrative and bureaucratic missed opportunities here. So we will be a little more critical of the process in our report.
Now whether or not it would have made any difference, we will not be able to speak to that. Since we don’t know the mechanical, physical, initiating event — we do believe that the orbiter entered the earth’s atmosphere with a preexisting flaw. But that flaw could be as small as two inches by two inches. Or it could be larger. So, whether or not any photography could have detected that is pretty argumentative.
But, when we speak to the old-timers, some of the original flight engineers and flight directors and astronauts, they give us a slightly different view. They all say, none of that makes any difference. This is a test vehicle. Of course you want pictures. Just so you know. And all the rest of this stuff is bureaucratic fumbling and bumbling.
So, I can answer part of your question. The Board has investigated this, as illustrated by our interim recommendation. We have satisfied ourselves that this process didn’t work, that it was no one person’s failure. But we cannot determine to any satisfaction, that it would have made any difference. I hope that answers your question, sir.
CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Senator Hollings.
SENATOR HOLLINGS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Admiral Gehman, right from the get-go, what about the Chairman’s observation, that we need have every statement, every bit of information that you folks on the Commission of Inquiry have made, as any — can we have all of those or has confidentiality agreements been made to give cover for some of those statements that, in other words, cannot be made public or cannot be given to the Committee? What’s your answer to the Chairman’s request that we have all the information you have?
ADMIRAL GEHMAN: Thank you, Senator. As I indicated in my opening remarks, it is out belief that the Congress of the United States will get a better report from us –.
SENATOR HOLLINGS: — I know we’re going to get a better report. Let me ask, have you given confidentiality agreements to anybody in this investigation, whereby their statements will not be available to this Committee?
ADMIRAL GEHMAN: We have, Senator. But –.
SENATOR HOLLINGS: — There you go.
ADMIRAL GEHMAN: But that doesn’t mean that their statements won’t be available to this Committee. We have conducted witness interviews, in accordance with the safety procedures used by several branches of the Executive branch, and there are processes by which this Committee can have access to those. And as I indicated in my opening statement, those processes are now being negotiated by our staffs.
SENATOR HOLLINGS: Well, I’m not clear yet. One minute you’re saying you have given confidentiality agreements, and then you’ve got to argue with lawyers and so forth as to whether we get them. But that’s by the pale. The real important question is, could anything have been done to save those astronauts?
Now, we know the ingenuity in the Apollo 13, and you’ve got — Admiral, you and I have discussed it, an ingenious group and they know how to work and go and everything else of that kind, and implement. I disagree with the distinguished Administrator’s observation that there was no urgency. The truth is, within 81 seconds we knew that insulation had caused damage. The truth is that, two days thereafter, the engineers were calling up an asking. And they’re calling up and asking for an investigation and pictures and everything else like that.
The Boeing, I guess it was, made the investigation, but they didn’t report till day 12. Now that there would go along with the Administration’s no urgency, but you had urgency on the other side, namely the mapping agency, was calling up and saying, we can get pictures, we can get pictures. You had the engineers and everything else. You call it bureaucratic and missed signals, but really if I had — it wasn’t until, like I said, day 12, that he found out, wait a minute, we should have done something. Could anything have been done?
I’ve talked to an astronaut or two, and they think that yeah, you could have gotten another Shuttle up. Otherwise, you could have turned that around for reentry, so the cool side would be to where the damage had been inflicted and that kind of thing. There are all kind of maneuvers could have been made, but just looks to me like somebody that saw that, in charge, just all of the sudden just crossed their fingers and said, well it’s worked before let’s hope it works again and just cool it, cool it. But oh no, we don’t want any pictures. In other words, they were refusing to get the pictures. Not on account of urgency. The urgency was there. What’s your comment, Admiral?
ADMIRAL GEHMAN: Senator, we as a Board, early in this investigation considered the question about what, if anything, could have been done — how close did the astronauts come to surviving this? And in the early part of this investigation, the Board decided that there were still too many emotions and too many egos and too many feet stuck in concrete, to address that.
Now, three months later in this investigation, we know more, some of the emotions are off the sleeves now a little bit, and we have just directed and just begun a formal inquiry into what could have been done. That inquiry is about 10 days old. We think that the emotions are out of it now, some of the reluctance to discuss these things have — we’ve got a little separation of time now, so people can be cooler about this.
That investigation is going on right now, jointly with our Board and bunch of real smart people from NASA. And it is headed in a direction — it’s too early to say. We haven’t found any magic fix, let me put it that way. But, I will say that it’s not — it’s inconceivable that we would come up with the answer that we could do nothing. I mean, of course we would do something. And we have determined that, for example, that the estimate of how long the orbiter could just hang up there, for example, the harder we dig into that, the longer that date gets. It turns out that it could have stayed in orbit a couple of more days, more than a couple of more days, it turns out that the more we dig into this, the longer that number gets. And it gives you more opportunities to do things. And even if we came up with a fix that only had a 10 percent chance of succeeding –.
SENATOR HOLLINGS: — We’d have tried.
ADMIRAL GEHMAN: Of course we would have done something. Absolutely. So, thus far, this review, which is, I — which I’ve looked at myself, I found it to be pretty aggressive and pretty well thought out. Hasn’t found any magic formula, but has found several steps that could have been done to mitigate this. We may find more. But this is a fairly — this is tough work for people who are closely associated with the program and they’re doing a good job of it. So, maybe I’ll be able to get back to you later on. But doing nothing is obviously, not the right answer.
SENATOR HOLLINGS: Bless you. How about Mr. O’Keefe.
MR. O’KEEFE: Thank you, Senator. I don’t disagree with your assessment, Senator. It was a judgment call. It was clearly the wrong judgment. And as a consequence, I mean, what we know now, hind sight being the circumstance, there are a variety of signals that could have gone, or told us what we should have been observing and what we could have corrected.
Nonetheless, the judgment by the Mission Management Team at the time, was they looked at the 16 day mission. They said, every one of the things we’ve observed, all the spirited debate that you refer to. You’re exactly right. Lots of dialogue back and forth. In the end, they made a determination and said, do we think this is a more urgent circumstance than we’ve ever experienced before, and the answer, rightly or wrongly, was they felt, in their judgment, this was not outside the normal. That certainly proved to be an erroneous judgment.
So, you know, looking back on this, there’s no question. The clarity is there. At the time they went through it, the Mission Management Team certainly looked at that. I concur entirely with Admiral Gehman’s assessment, that had there been a different determination, we would have spared nothing to find a way to return the orbiter and the crew safely to this planet. No question.
SENATOR HOLLINGS: But just one little observation, that of course, it does look like a judgment was made that it was urgent, and it was perhaps a fatal injury to the Shuttle itself, and they determined to make sure that that was not proved, by not taking pictures and those kind of things. Those are the things that worry us on the Committee. It looks like they knew it and there was the urgency and they knew about the urgency and everything else, but they tried to sort of cover-up the urgency. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, if I could, Mr. Senator. I entirely concur in Admiral Gehman’s assessment of this. This is — when you look at the Memorandum of Agreement between NASA and NIMA, there is nothing that really jumps out at you and says jeez, this looks like it’s gonna be a really bureaucratic procedure. In practice, it proved to be absolutely impossible to implement correctly. It was the wrong way to go about doing it. We have corrected that. There is no ambiguity about this point.
General Clapper and I have had some very specific, direct words on how to arrange this. And there is going to be no ambiguity on this point in the future. But there was nothing that would scream off that page of the Memorandum of Understanding, that says what we have here is an impractical or an impossible situation. In practice, I agree entirely with the way Admiral Gehman described it. It is something that you’ve got folks who don’t know or were not aware of the quality of what could be available. And then a procedure that ultimately turned on the determination of NASA about what other priorities the intelligence community may require. Singularly unqualified to make that judgment call.
And so as a consequence, it became — it ground itself down to the null set. And that’s what we fixed. There is no ambiguity about this procedure any longer. It is infuriating to see how that process played out. And I share your absolute frustration with the fact that that should not have occurred that way.
CHAIRMAN McCAIN: And it’s equally infuriating that no one is responsible. Those decisions weren’t made by machines. Someone is responsible.
SENATOR ALLEN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Let me switch from this line of questioning to the current operations. The Space Shuttle, while it’s an old craft, is still the most capable, it is reusable, it can carry loads as well as obviously, crew members up to the Space Station. It’s clearly a national asset that is currently grounded. My question is regarding the future of the Shuttle and the International Space Station. Specifically, what is our strategy that will be guiding the operation of the Space Station while this Space Shuttle is grounded?
MR. O’KEEFE: Sure. If we could — our partnership with the International Space Station partners of 16 nations, has demonstrated the depth of that partnership by responding and stepping up when we need that capability most. In particular, our Russian partners in the Rosaviacosmos, the Russian Space Agency, have responded in a remarkable way, by not only accelerating the logistics flights that are necessary to re-supply the International Space Station, but also to honor their commitments previously made, to launch the Soyuz Spacecraft, which will now be used for crew rotation purposes.
I was in Russia weekend before last, to — after several tense hours, to welcome home the Expedition 6 Crew; Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit, and Nikolai Budarin. And just days before, Ed Lu and Yuri Malenchenko, were launched on Soyuz to man the Space Station as it is today, on Expedition 7. So, that rotational pattern will continue and we will then maintain a capability there that again, our International Space Station partnership has stepped up, to the task of maintaining that capability independent of the Shuttle’s operation.
The catch is, we can’t continue to build the International Space Station — complete it, until we return to flight safely. And so, the imperative for moving ahead, finding the problem, fixing it, and responding by returning to safe flight, is imperative of building the International Space Station and conducting the activities that we had planned and worked through for so long.
SENATOR ALLEN: Well, implicitly, in doing simple math, we’re sending two crew members now, rather than three. Which then gets the question of its capabilities and is it — can two do as many as three? And then following that is, what’s the strategy of NASA, in so far as the balance between the use of manned space flight, versus robotic satellites?
MR. O’KEEFE: Well the maintenance of Exhibition 7, as well as each crew hereafter, that will be launched on Soyuz or recovered by the return of the attached Soyuz flight that’s aboard now, is what is required to maintain continued safe operations of the International Space Station. It is a lights on, fluids running, you know, kind of maintenance capability and some science. There is not a complete diminution of that. They’re not just there as an engineering or maintenance crew. But they are — it does guarantee safety of flight operations and keeping it at the appropriate altitude in order to maintain safe operations.
So, the diminution of one is more a function of how many folks can you support with logistics flight, the progress flights that are sent now, five a year is what we’re planning, in order to maintain all logistics, the consumables, food, water, and you know, repairs, spare parts, etc. And that’s adequate in order to support two, not three. We could have maintained a longer or more extended presence of three crew members through early fall, but that would have drawn down the consumables faster, so we elected to make the change to two crew members earlier.
In terms of what is the future of human space flight and the imperative thereof, certainly this tragedy reminds us of the extraordinary risk that is taken when humans are engaged in space exploration. And in doing so, it means we have to absolutely convince ourselves of the imperative of why humans need to be involved in certain missionary activities. As it pertains to the operations aboard International Space Station, I think the opening comments from so many members here of the Committee, particularly your statement that this be a science for the research enterprise. Indeed, that is its primary purpose. A lot of that can be done robotically. A lot of it can be done remotely. Some of it can’t. It requires human interaction and activity, in order to divine the kind of science and research activities an experimentation that’s necessary.
The Hubbell Space Telescope, classic example again, of why human space flight is a very important element of the overall equation. Because when we launched that capability 10 years ago, it was determined to be out of focus, and was widely deemed to be a $1 billion piece of space junk. It has come back from the ashes as a consequence of that, because of human interaction. Were it not for the capacity on the part of humans to make adjustments to that piece of machinery, it couldn’t be done remotely, it would have remained a $1 billion piece of space trash.
Today, its rewriting the astronomy books, based on what we’re learning from it, because of human interaction. So, we’re going to be very selective and very careful on how we engage in human space flight and expose the risk only when you see the imperative is there, for human interaction required. But beyond that, I don’t see a circumstance under which we would eliminate it entirely.
SENATOR ALLEN: But you do see an increased value in it?
MR. O’KEEFE: Yes, sir.
SENATOR ALLEN: Because advancements go forward.
MR. O’KEEFE: Absolutely. No question at all.
SENATOR ALLEN: My time has concluded. Thank you both.
MR. O’KEEFE: Thank you, Senator.
CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Thank you.
SENATOR WYDEN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Gentlemen, thank you, and being with you, if I might, Mr. O’Keefe. And if I explore something with you that really goes back to the days when I chaired the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, now chaired very well by our colleague, Senator Brownback. And my sense, Mr. Administrator, is that there is really an urgent need for a thorough overhaul of the way people within NASA communicate with each other.
If you look, for example, at the kinds of things that we’re talking about here, and Senator Hollings and Chairman McCain have gotten into it. What we see is it just doesn’t seem that the people on the front lines, the engineers, seem to feel that they’re getting through to people up at the top. And you hear that again and again and again.
Now, I recognize that we’re still in the preliminary kinds of stages in this area. But I’d be interested in your sense at this point, a, whether you think that there really is a need for significant change at NASA with respect to how people communicate with each other, and what you think some of the elements of — if you feel that way, what some of the significant elements of those changes ought to be.
MR. O’KEEFE: Thank you, Senator. I don’t disagree, that we’ve got to constantly work to open the communications to garner and divine everyone’s best judgment, advice, and opinion on the engineering and technical challenges we experience on a regular basis.
There are two things that apply in this one. I’ve come, looking at the record and all the email traffic and all the reviews of what’s occurred here. The first one is that in this age of modern information technology, what we have created, again, as a consequence of it, is a very egalitarian process. When you look at the wiring diagrams of who was talking to who, who was emailing who, it was independent of where they fit on the overall hierarchical chain. There is nothing monolithic about how that approach is taken. Indeed you have junior engineers communicating with very senior people in the organization on what they thought, and responding on that basis.
So, the Mission Management Team that conducted the in-flight operations coordination effort, encouraged and received an awful lot of commentary from not just the folks within the space flight community, but outside of it. And solicited commentary from others.
So, that part is the good news. The problem is, it’s much like anything else, where you’re encouraging volume, if becomes a cacophony. You can’t quite put it in context. And therefore judgment calls get made. And that’s the second part that really is a pattern here that concerns me a bit. We engage in a unbelievably rigid process, leading up to launch. The flight readiness reviews and so forth, everything prior to that, is a very methodical effort that is a very hard lesson learned from Challenger, in which everyone is encouraged to pipe up, there’s all kinds of interaction, and then as soon as the operation begins, it becomes a group of folks in the Mission Management Team.
Now, this derives from, I think, a very tried and true kind of military operational procedure, in which you want hear lots of commentary, but in the end, somebody’s got to have the operational control of how this works and make decisions about it. There’s a little less of a rigidity to that process, for a good reason. In order to maintain flexibility, and to be adaptive to circumstances as they present themselves.
But, nonetheless, this clearly — this indicates that yes indeed, the premise of your question is right on. We need to really examine this carefully. Not because there isn’t enough interaction, but its quality is confused. It is in volume, but not in any organized manner. In terms of how the operational management of a mission is conducted, it doesn’t lend itself as well, from what I can divine, towards any prioritization of those observations. So, yes indeed, sir, I am committed to that, looking at how we overhaul that function and encouraging what’s good about it, and figuring out how to put some organization to it to make it meaningful.
SENATOR WYDEN: The other area I wanted to ask about — we talked, obviously, about one of the recommendations, the preliminary recommendations. The accident aboard, with respect to the, you know, imaging. And I’m pleased to see that you would have handled that one differently. But what about the other recommendations, calling for a comprehensive inspection plan to look at the structural integrity of the reinforced carbon-carbon system, you know, components now? This again, is a preliminary recommendation from the Accident Board, but certainly people have asked me, having been involved in these issues, why something like this wasn’t done before the tragedy. And I’m sure there is some technical kinds of questions in this area, but I’d like to get your response for the record on that.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yes, sir. Thank you, Senator. Indeed, this is an area that the finding and the recommendations of the Board, you know, I’ll refer to Admiral Gehman, in terms of the approaches they looked at, to come to this conclusion. But nonetheless, their finding and recommendation is right on the mark. These are the kinds of things that we need to develop.
The catch is, I’m advised by our technical community, the engineering folks, that there is no specific, non-destructive testing method that is available to do and accomplish what is necessary, while the leading edge is in place. And so as a consequence, we’ve worked with our friends and colleagues at the Langley Research Center, to develop such a technique, because there’s been a lot of work on it, a lot of folks have been talking about it trying to figure out how to do this, but there is no known technique you can just simply say, let’s go get that approach and go do it.
Instead, what it requires, you take the leading edge off and then examine it through a variety of different techniques, rather than in place. And in doing so, the engineers are of the view that that in turn creates unintentionally, the prospect that you may further damage or compromise the seals at each of the points of the leading edge itself. So what we’ve got to find, is a non-destructive testing method in place in order to do this.
Now, having said that, during the course of every OMM process, which is the major maintenance process, where you tear down the orbiter, essentially every eight to ten flights. Typically, they’ll be removed and inspected through that process or replaced if need be. On Columbia, I believe, and I’ll defer to Admiral Gehman on the specifics of this, but some number of those leading edge panels were replaced, but not all of them. Some were original material. And so, the actual inspection of them may have been, and certainly was, inadequate, during the course of that. But we’re trying to develop a technique that would do just that.
SENATOR WYDEN: Mr. Chairman, if we could just get the Admiral’s response on (inaudible) to the point Mr. O’Keefe was talking about, is to have really done the job as comprehensively as the Administrator would have liked, you needed to develop some technology, but there was, I think I caught in the Administrator’s comments, some flaws, even in terms of the inspection process that was used. If that’s the case, Admiral, could you tell us your thoughts with respect to the flaws in the inspection process. Because, at least I have not heard that on the records.
ADMIRAL GEHMAN: Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Once again, I will differ slightly in my analysis than the Administrator’s analysis. Of the 44 panels on the two wings of the Columbia, the 44 RCC panels, only three had been replaced. The other 41 are original equipment, you know, 25 years old. The question is, does anyone know whether or not those carbon laminate pieces, which are not fiberglass, but think of fiberglass, which are subjected to weather and lots of other things. Does anyone know the condition of those panels? And the Board was not satisfied that, like any other aircraft which is approaching its twentieth or twenty-fifth year, an extensive amount of aircraft aging analysis is done. The Board was not satisfied that a similar engineering kind of pattern was being followed by NASA.