NASA Walks the Gauntlet: Sean O’Keefe Does Brunch With the Press (Part 2)

By Keith Cowing
March 10, 2003
Filed under
NASA Walks the Gauntlet: Sean O’Keefe Does Brunch With the Press (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

A reporter then asked O’Keefe about what NASA is doing in the interim while the CAIB investigates and deliberates. “It might take 6 months to do the investigation. Do you have to wait 6 months to start fixing things or are there things that are not related to the cause of the accident that you can start fixing.” Are people already working on solutions?”

O’Keefe said “There is no question that at when you go through an extensive ‘fish tank’ investigation such as this one, for all the world to see, that there is no doubt in my mind that there is going to be lots of things that may have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with precipitating the accident. There may be things found that, from a management standpoint, we’d say ‘why in the world would we be doing business like that?’ And there are circumstances where there are design characteristics that we might never of thought of before i.e. why we’d did it that way or ‘I have thought about it before and maybe its time to look at that.’ All kinds of debates will go on after a cathartic event like this. Many things will be discussed and debated. There may be things that were not necessarily suppressed, but were never resolved. This kind of event may bring a change. I am absolutely certain that things are emerging now and will continue to emerge that have absolutely nothing to do with the accident that may be changed because everything is on the table”.

One important thing to note, according to O’Keefe is that NASA may see a number of things that need to be changed bit the changes will not be made until the CAIB’s final report is completed. “We locked down everything within an hour or less after the event. The last thing we want to do is inadvertently alter evidence, change something accidentally, go back and reconstruct this, or whatever.” As such O’Keefe said “NASA will be looking to the CAIB for an OK to work on something or make any alterations and that the CAIB has gotten what it needs for its investigation. That is why the fault tree analysis has been this deliberate so, as we close things out and make changes, that we get a clear understanding and their (CAIB’s) approval.”

O’Keefe then described the room where the ongoing fault tree analysis is being done as one “with paper all over the walls. They are working though some 100 or so variations and working through the fault tree to see what thing could beget another. As they close things out they ask ‘why are we doing it that way?”

At this point a non-Columbia question was asked: one asking for some clarification on the budgets for the ‘Prometheus” Nuclear Power Initiative and the Orbital Space Plane (OSP). O’Keefe’s reply was along the lines he has given many times – both before and after the Columbia accident. “The OSP and Prometheus are examples of a far ranging strategy to really concentrate on some very finite technical limitations and the technology needed to overcome those limitations to get to another place – to another plateau. These are not incremental improvements- these are opportunities to work on finite issues. Prometheus is an umbrella for larger initiative for developing power generation and propulsion technologies for use in space. It does not have anything to do with getting from here to low Earth orbit – that is what Next Generation Launch technology will be looking at. Prometheus is the first intensive effort to move in a new direction. Power generation capability would be increased by a factor of 100 and propulsion by a factor of three. We’re looking at increased maneuvering capability without enormous amount of chemical propulsion baggage that would otherwise be required. Once you have beat this technology then there is no place you can’t go to.”

O’Keefe also tipped his hat to the military’s experience with nuclear power systems, noting that the naval nuclear program had “35 years and 125 million miles of experience, safely, without incident – and with some power left over. The Navy has demonstrated this technology. We’re going to have them participate and provide design and development expertise.” He added “We are solicitous of their design prowess.”

When asked if there was any military involvement in the OSP program O’Keefe said “Certainly there is some interest (among the military) in technology demonstration – maneuverability and in space propulsion. As for working with the Air Force, how technology might be used or deployed is down the road. And that is not a certainty – but they are very interested.” He continued ” At Marshall Space Flight Center you will see the Air Force involved in part of the overall SLI effort with regard to a Next Generation Launch Vehicle – and I expect that to continue.”

When asked if any of the OSP requirements were driven by the military O’Keefe replied “that gets back to same proposition I made earlier. Instead of looking at a wide range of things – if you add someone else’s expectations to what you are looking at, you end of doing everything poorly. We are looking at a narrow range of focus. If you don’t then you end up with something that collapses under its own weight since it can’t do everything for everybody. OSP requirements are literally one page – and that was not an accident. We were very specific about the things we want it to do. And they are all driven by NASA requirements. They have applications, to be sure, for possible military applications, but they are driven by what we (NASA) need.”

The next question had to do with a reduced crew size on the ISS – from 3 to 2 – and what effect this would have on the ability to do science. Of note was the oft-mentioned contention that it takes 2.5 people to run the ISS – leaving 0.5 people to do science. Clearly that equation will not work if there are only 2 people to begin with. Will science be limited to what can be done to monitor the crew?

O’Keefe replied “the biggest restriction on science on the ISS is what we can physically send up to the ISS via Soyuz and Progress vehicles given that they are only so big. And what is on Progress is primarily – essentially – consumable assets needed to sustain life for f those aboard. This includes water, groceries, etc. As it stands right now, there is a minimum package necessary which consumes a lot of the cargo space already. We are doing studies to look at tradeoffs. There is an issue with water. For a crew of 3 we can supply enough until August – and that assumes that we can be flying Shuttles again by August. That is not a certainty. As a consequence, betting on that would be a bad idea. That is why we went to 2 person crew. There is not an awful lot left over for a science package. And even if we had plenty of time and plenty of things to work on it would be difficult to get there. As a result, ISS Chief Scientist Neal Pellis, NASA Chief Scientist Shannon Lucid, and OBPR Associate Administrator Mary Kicza are all working to try and develop a science package that requires lesser volume that offers a lot of intensity to yield that we can get for the 2 crew compliment. There is not a list yet of what will go up – but it will be more than just human biology.”

Next was a question regarding the OSP, specifically, the name ‘Orbital Space Plane’ and whether this was a hint to potential contractors that NASA was looking for a winged vehicle (as opposed to a capsule)

O’Keefe replied “No, there is not a fixed design that we are wed to. The design phase which started back in November contemplates 12-18 month time period. This is driven off of a one page Level 1 requirement. So, if you can meet that with any design you’d like…. That is the kind of invitation we’re offering now to industry to look at the requirements. We do not want to close off any options at all. This was not a subtle attempt to say that its got to look like something preconceived. There is not a lot of interpretation required on this. I was adamant to the point of being belligerent that we get this down to something that was straightforward rather than some 18 volume set of documents that required a Talmudic scholar to interpret. This is really straightforward. There is not a lot of ambiguity in there. So, creativity is the watch word in the industry – lets see if they got it.”

O’Keefe was asked if he’d consider a name change of the OSP to something else if something other than a winged vehicle was chosen. O’Keefe said he was open to that possibility. Editor’s note: although it was put on indefinite hold after the Columbia Accident, a draft version of a National Space Policy Directive under development at the White House used the term “Orbital Space Transport” to describe this vehicle.

The questions then turned back to Columbia with a request for O’Keefe to explain whether there were and any scenarios envisioned that specifically contemplated the loss of tiles from an Orbiter. O’Keefe replied that he was unaware of any one specific scenario that dealt with that, adding that more than loss of a tile in and of itself would be required. “It has to be a succession of other events. If you lost a tile, and then there was a penetration … there would have to have been an appearance of a sensor anomaly internal to orbiter. That would have given an indication that would have lead to another set off circumstances. There are scenarios in place that deal with sensor readings going up or down. There isn’t any contingency – unless I am corrected (by Readdy) that says that because a tile is lost, that this happens, and then this happens – or that happens. It would be purely hypothetical.”

Bill Readdy added “you need to look at how long we train for these missions- a year or more sometimes – and all of the different circumstances we prepare for. Each console [in Mission Control] has a book of preplanned contingencies that they can refer to. That’s your point of departure [when something happens]. Beyond that we have pre-existing Problem Resolution Teams. When we get to the email that is being discussed – those emails were not ad hoc. Those people were put together previously as part of a Problem Resolution Team to deal with landing and rollout issues. These are the people that worked on landing and rollout simulations and developed matrices of all kinds of cases where various things could happen – one tire loss, belly landings – a number of things. So, I think, to your specific question, they went through and looked at the ability of an impact at x location, with damage to a certain area, and what would be the result of that. That is, was there damage (yes or no)?, would there be any impact to structure? Then they worked from there and to a conclusion that said no there was not a significant risk. That is the process that you go through.”

A question regarding 2 person crews and safety was asked. Readdy replied that crews on ISS had done 2 person spacesuit donning and doffing and think that they are happy with the results of that. “Our experience on Mir where the crew was only 2 people would be a similar construct for what we’re seeing on the ISS.” Readdy said.

It was then my turn for another question – one I asked initially of Associate Administrator for Public Affairs, Glenn Mahone who was seated next to Readdy and O’Keefe. “This is probably the most bizarre question I could ever ask as the editor of NASA Watch. You are putting emails online that are work-a-day stuff – the sort of thing that I get all the time. If I posted them I would change the source to ‘someone@nasa.gov‘. Your stuff is just flying up on the web with everyone’s name and email addresses. To me it is kind of a paradigm shift – a welcome one at that. Do people complain that you are doing this? Secondly are you worried that this can cause some things at NASA to no longer be put in email form? Are you afraid that there will be a reflex response?” I added “I can give you documented examples where I posted something on NASA Watch and that caused a sort of report to no longer be made available in email form as a direct result. I guess I have to say that I am kind of astonished – pleasantly astonished – to see this posting happen, but it can have a negative effect, it may cause people to go underground, call on the phone, or write notes by hand, or something like that.”

O’Keefe replied “Yes, it is a concern. Because, in my mind, there is a risk that there will be folks out there who will say ‘holy smokes!’ I am not sure I want to express myself quite as … graphically as this’. But to the extent that it motivates people to do that, there is a chance. And it is very important that we remind folks that under no circumstances – and I know people at Langley have this concern – that ‘this is what we did’. This is the job we did and I hope that people see this within the context [within which it was written] of what was involve din looking at these ‘what if’ scenarios. Are there going to be some people who will pull back – that may well be the case. Is it also going to prompt some modification of email etiquette – that is a consequence that I think is a matter of leadership and that I should remind folks that this should not be an impediment to open dialog. And the benefit by doing this is so much more in making sure it gets out there and that people understand the context. It is worth that leadership challenge that we are now encountering to get this stuff out there. It does pose some privacy issues. Early on I said to our lawyers ‘OK, this is what we are going to do. What are the privacy issues in these exchanges between and among folks?’ And the lawyers did it in a way that frankly defies the usual principles of how lawyers do business – i.e. the longer it takes, the higher the billable hours. They came back with a rapid answer on this one so we could figure out a process to get this stuff moving. And I know it is not fast enough for everyone – but it is a lot faster than you seen under any other circumstance. I constantly read complaints why it took this long [to release something]. I have a member of Congress who said ‘how come it took you that many weeks?’ We’re getting it out as fast as we can. Part of the problem is corralling it. How do you get it all together, what is relevant, – and deal with privacy issues.”

Glenn Mahone added “I think it is important to note that on the very first day that the Administrator did say that we’d be providing information and we have done everything we could and lived up to what his direction has been. I have gotten a few pats on the back but I have also gotten a few saying ‘I can’t believe you people are actually doing that!’ So we have made a very conscious effort to be open and supply the information as soon as we could in a timely manner and we will continue to do that.”

I complimented NASA, noting that I have somewhat of a reputation as a ‘dumpster diver’ (and noted that I was doing so in front of the NASA press corps) for the way that they had been providing this information. I said “I have gotten emails asking ‘should you really be putting people’s email addresses on line?” and I responded ‘do you know where I got this!?’ This was not just a couple of emails – I got dozens.”

The next questions focused on the financial and commercial aspects of Shuttle operations. Specifically with regard to options for operating the Space Shuttle fleet.

O’Keefe said “there is nothing that I am aware of right now as a consequence of the CAIB that suggests a reconsideration or options on competitive sourcing for launch activities.” O’Keefe said that until the CAIB issues its final report “it would be purely speculative on my part. The larger issue is that much of the discussion about a different conduct of private operations for the Shuttle program was written in a RAND report. This report was based on a premise that there was going to be a substantial market viability for commercial launch services that would make it potentially financially practical for someone (a company or a private concern) to consider ownership and operation of the Shuttle. Well, that market forecast not only didn’t materialize, it has kind of gone the other way. So much of the analysis that went into the RAND report made it almost instantly moot. Let’s assume that you go to any of these variations (there are a couple of them). Most of the variations were based on the proposition that there was some substantial commercial viability. In fact everybody was predicting that the skies would be darkened with Iridium satellites while we all had our handheld devices. Well none of that has come to be. So, it could well happen in the future, but it certainly did not happen in the time frame that was cogitated to make any of those commercial opportunities available. So, all of those other permutations – most of the options contained in that report – were based on some private concern that frankly, is a null set.”

O’Keefe was then asked a question which resulted in at least one gross misquote in the printed media (Houston Chronicle). The question had to do with whether O’Keefe felt that he, as NASA Administrator, should be more involved in mission operations.

O’Keefe replied “there is always a debate as to what is the risk envelope that you want to accept. Let’s start with the proposition that the way to eliminate the risk – is YOU DON’T FLY. That is one way to absolutely guarantee that no one is gonna get hurt on the Shuttle – if you don’t fly. No doubt about it. In the process of doing that you are giving up all of the exploration objectives that you accrue from that and you have made a conscious choice that the risk is overwhelming relative to what gain you could achieve. Everything else from that point on becomes ‘at the margin’ sort of stuff.”

From my anecdotal impression of all of this – and I am not going to kid you that it was any thing systemic or systematic over the course of the last 14 months – or that I have looked at every single moving part in this process to satisfy myself Yet, based on this anecdotal experience, it sure appears that diligence is a constant human condition in what we do. This is coming from someone who has arrived at this agency with what has been pointed out to me very frequently absolutely no prior understanding of that activity. And it was offered in less than complementary ways. So, 14 months ago I did not have that sense. [Jokingly] I did not have, some would argue any sense of what that process entailed. So I wasn’t biased or presumed in one direction or another. I have been mightily impressed with the diligence that I have seen and the caution that is exercised and the extreme care taken in the course of every run out to every flight and a willingness to step back and defer on the basis of almost any anomaly.”

“The anomaly I found the most amazing testimonial to this was on a perfectly clear night – the launch of STS-113. Not a cloud in the sky. Everything was exactly right. There was not an anomaly on the board anywhere. Everything was green. It was perfect to go.”

“But because the weather in Zaragosa Spain was marginal it was stopped and deferred. That was the abort site that you can use for – what – the first 90 -100 seconds and then after that your e not going anywhere and we have never used an abort site in the history of the program. But because the weather was not closed – but was marginal in Zaragosa, one of two abort sites that night, we canceled that launch. And deferred it for another 24 hours.”

“Now, I mean, gee whiz, that one struck me as a testimonial to the fact that there is just no stone left unturned and anything that looks like it is just ‘gosh I just don’t like that ‘ or your comfort zone is not there, or you feel a twitch or something – these guys will absolutely, diligently, withdraw from anything that looks like an unknown. The fact is there are the ‘unknown knowns’ – the things that you know might happen. It is the unknown unknowns that worry folks to death. You have just described a null set here. I don’t know what I don’t know. When it happens how do I figure out how I could have prevented it? This is anecdotal but it is a powerful set of anecdotes. It isn’t just this one I gave you. I could go through his all day long sitting here. Its not systemic, its not systematic, but it sure is asset of very, very powerful anecdotes of what it is that motivates folks to be diligent and how I have seen that displayed, after 14 months, with no prior conviction or view or bias before arriving.”

O’Keefe the restated the question asking “how much more operationally involved should I be? Well this is a real tough one because it is one that has certainly been implied in several different statements and comments. It is a very important question. It is one that I will not dodge. I think it is a case where you are constantly parsing things – such as where is the risk, when is it acceptable, how do you make a determination about it. It is the same kind of case here – but in a different context. It is one of management principals – leadership philosophy – that if you are engaged in every element of the operational conduct of activity at the highest level of the organization, that has the inadvertent, unintended consequence of communicating to others that you are absolved from responsibility. So therefore it all resides in one place with the least competent individual to understand all of the activities now has the responsibility for that case.”

“And again, arguably, [Joking] I am the least competent individual for a lot of reasons. So, trusting this at the highest level of operational activity at the highest level of any organization is something that is always a very hazardous call because that has the unintended – even in the best of circumstances – consequence of absolving responsibility and accountability at lots of different levels. Not that the accountability has been removed from the highest level. There is no question about this – this accident happened on my watch. I am accountable for this activity. And I am going to be accountable for the conduct of this whole review. And I am going to be accountable at the end of the day on how well we achieve the objective I talked about earlier – finding out what the problem was, fix it, and getting back to flying safely. That is an accountability that I will definitely feel every day – and have since the day this started.”

“But does this then auger in favor of saying ‘lets move the operational judgment call further up that process’, I don’t know whether this is the answer or not because that , in a different context, could arguably be the absolute worst type of micromanagement. And again the classic definition of micromanagement is ‘whatever the person right above you does’. So, as you move this further along that process and everyone then says ‘not my responsibility’ is that really the message you want to send? In this agency, I don’t see much evidence of that.”

“People feel responsible at every level for what goes on. I mean there are people who are just as removed from this as you’d think who none the less feel very responsible for the outcome. I don’t know if you want to fool with that because that is a very good sign. Anything we would do from a management or leadership standpoint to alter that – I would have cause for real concern. There is a concern that should be expressed, in any organization, where people further and further up the management chain start accepting more and more operational control this is, by definition, a real hazard. Because it is not just a case of moving accountability forward, you can establish that without it. Its where you don’t have folks who feel like they’ve got responsibility and can feel like they can affect a judgment that ultimately will have an outcome that will be positive. That’s something over which great care should be taken.”

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