NASA Walks the Gauntlet: Sean O’Keefe Does Brunch With the Press (Part 1)

By Keith Cowing
March 10, 2003
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NASA Walks the Gauntlet: Sean O’Keefe Does Brunch With the Press (Part 1)

During the difficult course NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has had to traverse this past month, he has been dogged by the news media every step of the way. While reporters have been respectful of the loss that all of NASA has gone through – and the immense amount of work that will be required to understand (and recover from) the demise of Columbia – they have done what reporters do best: poke and prod. And when information is lacking, they speculate based on what they have been able to dig up.

There has also been a lot of what I call ‘blamestorming’ wherein facts are linked together by reporters, often in a logical fashion, so as to arrive at conclusions about possible causes which then quickly leads to a rhetorical search for who was at fault. The fact that such plausible sounding scenarios are concocted at all is due, curiously, to the fact that NASA has been so open with releasing technical information. Having this information has allowed informed speculation that is all that much more informed. Yet, however armed with facts all of this speculation is, it is all still speculation.

For his part O’Keefe has been very available to the media, often times in multiple, back-to-back interviews and briefings. The same can be said for Associate Administrator for Space Flight Bill Readdy, and Reddy’s Deputy Mike Kostelnik, and Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore.

O’Keefe has also had to face several Congressional inquiries – a marathon Senate-House event on 12 February and a grilling before the House Science Committee a week later. Both visibly tired, O’Keefe and Bill Readdy sat down with several dozen reporters for a 2 hour brunch on Friday, 28 February. Despite countless media opportunities since the Columbia accident, this was the first time O’Keefe had the time to elaborate on his thoughts with reporters without deferring to the necessity of sound bites.

Alas, despite the nearly 2 hours O’Keefe gave to reporters, all of the articles to emerge (more promptly than this one I will admit) were light on detail. In one case there was an overt misquote of Sean O’Keefe in the Houston Chronicle.

As was the case with a press opportunity with Bill Readdy last week, I have tried to capture, at length, what was discussed in this session so as to provide some context to go with the facts.

As is his habit, O’Keefe began with a 20 minute presentation on where he saw things. With regard to the Columbia accident investigation, O’Keefe spoke of a “voluminous process of elimination” underway. He said that Adm. Gehman’s team was moving along “at a fair clip” but that this did not mean that they were “narrowing in on what the cause or probable causes may have been.”

O’Keefe wanted to be clear that NASA is “anxious to get the CAIB’s understanding of whatever systemic management or operations issue that we need to look to refine or upgrade – the processes we use for pre-launch, launch, and on-orbit capabilities. In that respect there is a willingness – and enthusiasm – here for determining what elements in that process … were occurring. That is part of the reason we are trying to move expeditiously to release all the information we can find that may have formed that process.”

One thing O’Keefe mentioned which is of collateral interest to NASA is a series of events during the mission wherein the temperature and humidity within Columbia rose to the point where there was some concern that it might affect the science content of the mission. There were no safety issues per se other than the fact is was a bit warm for the crew – but there was a ‘spirited debate’ for several days as to what impact these conditions might have. O’Keefe wants to know how much such internal debates – “what if ” scenarios, etc. are tossed back and forth during a mission and how they relate to those that have emerged with regard to tile issues. In that vein, the larger, systemic management structure – and how it surfaces issues – is of interest to O’Keefe.

With regards to the previous day’s Congressional hearings, whose avowed intent was to cover NASA’s budget, the main issue was the Columbia accident. O’Keefe noted that he had just put the final touches on the presentation materials for the rollout of NASA’s FY 2004 budget (scheduled for 3 February 2003). Included in those materials was NASA’s 2003 Strategic Plan. This document is required annually of all government agencies and is normally produced in the Fall of the calendar year it addresses.

O’Keefe noted that this document was prepared well in advance – not at the last minute (indeed I picked up my printed copy at HQ on 3 February) since it provides a context that addresses initiatives that NASA was already in the process of implementing. “This is not something we pasted together in the course of the last couple of days but rather its was formulated along with the development of the budget process.” Said O’Keefe. He added that “in contrast to the usual development of strategic plans it was written with the specific plan that it be read – and that it be more “user friendly” so as to show the “context and thinking that went into NASA’s budget proposal”. O’Keefe stressed that this document was meant to show that “there indeed is a plan” instead of “looking for a ‘Hail Mary pass’ the hope that things will just fall together.”

When asked if he contemplated a change in the structure of chain of command at NASA O’Keefe replied “I have learned that there is very clearly evidence of spirited discussion that goes on in the course of an operation that really thinks though a wide range of ‘what if’ scenarios and that is very reassuring.”

O’Keefe repeated that his understanding of the events prior to Columbia’s reentry were that there was “clear evidence of a ‘spirited discussion that contemplates a wide range of what-if scenarios. There is nothing I have seen [within these discussions] that will tell me that there was something clearly amiss.”

O’Keefe noted that he, Paul Pastorek, and Jeremiah Creedon had recently visited Langley Research Center (LaRC) and had met with some of the individuals who had interacted with NASA JSC over concerns about Columbia. He said that the people at LaRC “were not concerned that they were raising red flags and no one was listening to them. Their concerns were not eliminated, but dealt with.”

In describing the process that goes into handling concerns such as those which arose during STS-107, O’Keefe said “If here was unanimity I would worry that people were complacent or that people just didn’t care. The depth of that exchange tells me that they were very serious minded professionals who viewed the range of options.”

O’Keefe spoke of the wide range of disciplines and management levels that interacted with minimal regard to hierarchy that go into these deliberations. While repeatedly defending the system currently in place, O’Keefe did seem open to the prospect that this might not necessarily be the optimum way to do things – again with the caveat that NASA needs to see the CAIB’s final report before any substantive changes are contemplated.

When asked about NASA’s decision to first request photographs of Columbia in orbit with military assets – and then the withdrawal of that request, O’Keefe said “there was nothing that suggested that there was a anomaly that had occurred that required the acquisition of imagery that other imagery could not address. There was no sensor data that suggested that there was any reason to believe that there was an anomaly that needed to be checked out. This is not a case of ‘I don’t want to know’, rather, an instance where people did not see a need to get additional imagery.”

O’Keefe was then asked if the Columbia accident has caused him to re-look at contingency plans – specifically in terms of tile damage and how it might be deal with on-orbit. O’Keefe replied “there is no end to the number of simulations and contingency circumstances that are discussed on a variety of different operations – and they are updated for every mission. The training regime includes a whole range of ‘what if ‘scenarios. Before we go back and update that – let’s go find out what happened instead of updating things based upon an imperfect understanding of what happened.”

When asked about something Ron Dittemore repeatedly said in post-accident briefings with regard to options which could have been exercised i.e. that ‘nothing we could be done anyway’ O’Keefe said “with all due respect, Ron Dittemore is not speaking for the agency in this regard. I fundamentally – absolutely – reject the proposition that there was nothing that could have been done on-orbit. The context within which he stated that has an entirely different meaning than what has been attributed to him. There isn’t anybody here at this agency that, had there been a strong indication that [something was wrong], wouldn’t have looked at the scenarios, the contingencies to see how applicable any of these might have been. [There is] no doubt in my mind whatsoever. Given the history of this agency there is nothing – we would have spared no effort to avoid a catastrophe. Every incident you can think of will never be covered by every scenario or every simulation that you can run. But to suggest that we would have done NOTHING!? at all is positively fallacious. If there would have been any indication at all that would have driven us to the point – and I am not talking about ‘what if’ scenarios – but rather a clear indication that says ‘here is some apparent damage, or something that is causing an operational deficiency, there would have been no end to the efforts to try and figure out [what could be done].”

At this point O’Keefe started to get a little angry “Apollo 13 – think about the circumstances there. There was no International Space station to rendezvous with. There was no other capsule up there. There was nothing on the pad that could have gone up to retrieve them. So I am sure there could have been a lot [of people saying] at that juncture – ‘Oh well, I guess there’s not much we can do’. But that is not what happened. In a situation like this you have to look at what you have available. Was this [the cause of the Apollo 13 accident] in anyone’s scenario or simulation? No. This was not a story that someone cooked up – this really happened. There are folks walking around – alive – today telling that story because they lived it – not because they wrote about it on some beach weekend. This really did happen.”

O’Keefe went on to say “in looking to save these people (Columbia’s crew), had there been an option, this would have been the ‘core responsibility – 24/7 – to try and find some solution. I just fundamentally, absolutely – categorically – reject the proposition that nothing would have been done – or that nothing could have been done.”

It was then turn for me to ask a question. In setting the context for my question I said “You can never ask for a good time for a bad thing to happen – and you shouldn’t. But you can respond to what fate has dealt you – and respond as best you can. Given the sacrifice that these people made – and clearly the wishes they would have as Gus Grissom said i.e. that he’d want ‘the program to go on’ – and looking back at what happened with Challenger(when NASA pretty much walked away with its tail between its legs) – and then looking [at how NASA responded] to Apollo 1 where they got back to fixing things – and Apollo 13 where it was ‘ how fast can we fly again?'” Placing this in the context of recent events (pre-accident) at NASA, I said “This is all sort of like a nuclear bomb going off in a hurricane. You were already making lots of changes. And then this accident happens which could either make the storm swirl worse – of differently. Is there anything you are going to do now that takes the crew’s sacrifice into account and seeks to energize or empower you – that is – is there anything now, a month after the accident, that you are looking to do differently?”

O’Keefe replied that he had indeed gotten a lot of opinions on this topic and that these opinions had come from “editorials, and talking heads on TV, email, Congress, etc.” Then, after a pause to reflect, speaking sotto voce, he said “first and foremost our responsibility is to find out what happened, determine what the cause was, and to be absolutely unrelenting in our pursuit of what happened. And then make a determination of what we need to do correct whatever deficiencies may be identified”. Based on this O’Keefe said that the agency would need to look at how the agency might do things differently – and better – and then “get back, as expeditiously as we can – to safe flight operations”. He said that it is “imperative to do this and that the ISS program depends on this”. Referring to all ISS partners he said “we are all in this together. It is essential that we keep our minds focused on that set of objectives. Beyond that there isn’t any consensus that I see emerging – that is beyond that what else should we do.”

Referring to speculation in the media – and advice he was being given on what NASA should do next, O’Keefe said “you have the full range of opinions – all the way from ‘shoot for the most ambitious objectives that you could ever imagine’ – to ‘get out of the business’ – and why don’t we shut everything down until such time as world peace is obtained, hunger is eliminated, unemployment is solved, and any other malady – environmental be rectified before we ever venture into space again. You get the full range – from A to Z.”

I interjected at this point that in interviews I have given I have often referred to this accident as “NASA’s 9-11”. I said, “as with any event of this nature you have multiple stages of adaptation and recovery. The people dealing with 9-11 are a year and a half ahead on this path – indeed they have just announced the design of what they want to build on the World Trade Center site in New York. Such tragedies allow people to focus on things that they might have been complacent about before. Out of this, things may emerge that might not have happened had there not been a catharsis. Have you looked at how that whole process (with the 9-11 aftermath) has happened?”

O’Keefe and Readdy both nodded. O’Keefe said in reference to the 9-11 analogy “Yes, we are very mindful of where we are.” He noted that there are not crisp lines between one phase and another and that you often start one phase such that it overlaps with another. He reiterated that it is very important to focus on the initial set of objectives he laid out moments before, and that this will evolve over time into a process whereby the agency thinks of the longer term implications. “Right now our energies are focused upon finding out what happened, fixing it, and getting back to flying safely.” He said.

O’Keefe was then asked if there was an alternative to returning to Shuttle operations such as they had been prior to the accident. He was also asked about NASA’s Strategic Plan, a document written before accident i.e. how current are these documents and how current should Congress consider them? The reporter noted that “some lawmakers are saying that everything is on the table.”

With regard to flying again O’Keefe said “there is no ambiguity within the Administration – and that we should be returning to safe flight as expeditiously as we can – unless there is something specific that would not allow us to meet that objective. If something says that you can’t achieve such an objective then that is the thing you go off and work.” He went on to say that he did not want to prejudge what the out come of current activities would be “we’ll do whatever it takes to achieve that objective and I will be as responsible as I can be to make that happen.”

As for the Congressional view of NASA’s Strategic Plan, O’Keefe said “I would never presume to speak for anyone in Congress. Are there differing views [in Congress?] There seems to be support for that objective (return to safe flight status). As for the Strategic Plan – yes, indeed. Everything is on the table and there will be a wide debate. Whether there will be a complete rethinking of everything that is under the charter of this agency – that may well be the outcome.” But within the Strategic Plan he said “this is not the same old stuff. This is a very different approach to how we are going to do things.”

O’Keefe was then asked whether NASA was looking to develop a future Shuttle flight tile repair capability. O’Keefe replied “I don’t know if there has been a lot of debate within the agency whether that is desirable and if it can really help you. That issue will be revisited and debated. What the outcome of that debate will be I don’t want to speculate.”

When asked about reports that a tire on Columbia may have exploded, O’Keefe said simply “sure there are several theories that have that as an operative issues. I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else knows.”

Continued in Part 2

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.