Sean O'Keefe: Progress Report on Fixing NASA's Shuttle


NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe sat down for another in a series of breakfast meetings with reporters on Wednesday. The topics covered a wide range of issues, but focused almost entirely on human space flight.

Return to Flight

O'Keefe said that NASA will be releasing an update to the CAIB Implementation plan this coming Friday. This plan details not only how recommendations from CAIB will be implemented by NASA, but also additional things that NASA is doing on its own initiative to "raise the bar", as O'Keefe puts it, to enhance the quality of what NASA does. O'Keefe also noted that the Return to Flight website now has a RTF suggestion function. You can send your ideas to

With regard to how NASA will be addressing CAIB recommendations, O'Keefe noted "this will not be the last update of implementation plan" and that it embodies a snapshot of NASA's ongoing compliance with what the CAIB recommended.

The CAIB recommendations span 29 items which range from managerial fixes to hardware topics such as on-board repair of damaged tiles and RCC inspection. O'Keefe said that progress was being made and that NASA now was beginning to see a that "there are solutions and a variety of options" becoming available.

On-orbit tile repair

Early in the Shuttle program, and on-orbit tile repair system was developed. However, it was determined at the time that the system was bulky, difficult to implement, and that it might even cause more damage than good. Moreover, the agency did not see any damage occurring to the tiles that would warrant continued development. With breaches in the Shuttle's Thermal Protection System after a foam impact now seen as the main contributing factor to the loss of Columbia, a variety of repair and inspection options are under study.

According to O'Keefe, some rather simple solutions to repairing tile damage on-orbit have emerged. To demonstrate for reporters how simple one concept was he pulled a small foam brush from his pocket - the small disposable type one would use for home refinishing projects. Noting that this brush "can be bought at K-Mart" O'Keefe went on to describe a two component system (not unlike commercial epoxy kits) which is mixed together and then applied to the affected area with something as simple as the brush he had in his hand. When I asked if he was going to be paying government prices for such a simple paint brush O'Keefe smiled and said he'd make sure that NASA procurement went out and bought them at K-Mart.

NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC)

One of the recommendations made by the CAIB called on NASA to "Establish an independent Technical Engineering Authority that is responsible for technical requirements and all waivers to them, and will build a disciplined, systematic approach to identifying, analyzing, and controlling hazards throughout the life cycle of the Shuttle System" and that "the Technical Engineering Authority should be funded directly from NASA Headquarters, and should have no connection to or responsibility for schedule or program cost." Another recommendation said "NASA Headquarters Office of Safety and Mission Assurance should have direct line authority over the entire Space Shuttle Program safety organization and should be independently resourced."

NASA has begun to act upon these recommendations by establishing the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) at NASA Langley Research Center. According to O'Keefe, the NESC will be activated next month. O'Keefe described the NESC as working toward becoming a "concentration of talent with a wide range of disciplines and capabilities which will be resonant in all NASA field centers."

People assigned to the NESC "will have tenures of 2 or 3 years and will then be rotated out so we that don't have folks looking at problems and becoming blunt to the observations they are making" O'Keefe said. He noted that NASA has received more than 900 applications thus far. Application includes a stated willingness to be reassigned to NASA LaRC. There will be 50-60 positions created initially. This number will grow to "150-200 over the course of the next year" according to O'Keefe..

O'Keefe emphasized that although the genesis for this effort was the Columbia accident and the CAIB's recommendations, that the output of the NESC will be viewed as being "beyond the Shuttle with applications across the agency to everything we do".

O'Keefe was peppered with a series of questions from reporters - all of whom were trying to link this center to being the final implementation, by NASA, of recommendations made by the CAIB, and that this implementation might fall short of what the CAIB was recommending.

O'Keefe made repeated comments to the effect that the functionality recommended by the CAIB, as implemented by NASA, may well reside within multiple organizations, at multiple locations across the agency and that he feared the creation of "a monolithic entity located atop Mt. Olympus" - one wherein all safety would be centrally controlled. The implication being that this could stifle - rather than facilitate the infusion of a renewed and expanded sense of safety consciousness across the agency.


Last month the entire Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) resigned - all at the same moment. The reasons varied from one individual to another - and ranged from feeling that NASA needed a clean slate to move beyond the CAIB report to feelings that NASA did not take the ASAP's efforts and advice seriously to the point of being openly hostile to ASAP's input.

Regardless of the reasons why the panel members resigned, O'Keefe is now faced with the prospect of creating an entirely new board from scratch.

When asked about ASAP panel members' comments that NASA had not paid attention to its recommendations and that some of them sensed hostility from NASA, O'Keefe replied "I reject the notion that there has been hostility. I have not seen evidence of hostility. There were professional differences of view. People express themselves. Why should it not appear here?"

When I asked O'Keefe how long he could function without an ASAP he said that there will be a new panel "within days or weeks". I also asked him how he was going to go about constituting the panel - noting (my words) that some of the previous ASAP panel members had become 'professional panel members' with terms lasting decades, and that a "Stockholm Syndrome" of sorts can develop among panel members who serve too long on a given advisory panel.

O'Keefe replied that he was looking at the original charter for the ASAP (the result of legislation introduced in 1967 in the aftermath of the Apollo-1 fire by then-Congressman Donald Rumsfeld R-Ill). O'Keefe expressed an interest in getting the panel's membership more focused on people with appropriate expertise such that they can provide advice of value to the agency.

When I asked if there are going to be "term limits" imposed on the membership, O'Keefe noted that the current term for membership is 6 years (which can be renewed) and that NASA was giving serious consideration to shorter terms. When asked if any Congressional help (legislation) was needed to make the changes NASA was contemplating, O'Keefe expressed confidence that the original charter would allow NASA to make the changes it deemed necessary.

OSP and Cargo to the ISS

NASA has decided to dramatically alter its approach to developing new means of cargo transport to the International Space Station (ISS). In a meeting held at NASA headquarters on Tuesday, four companies under contract to study so called "Alternate Access" ("Alt Access") concepts, were given details of NASA's new direction (see "NASA Changes The Focus Of Future ISS Cargo Delivery Plans")

Regardless of where the focus is going with regard to non-Shuttle means of delivering cargo to- and bringing material back from the ISS, systems will need to be developed -and this development will cost money.

Dennis Smith from NASA MSFC as making the rounds on Capitol Hill last week and told Congressional staff that the cost of getting to a CRV (crew return) capability for the OSP - by 2008 - will cost between $11-12 billion. The cost to get the OSP to have a CTV (crew transport) capability atop an EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) is still not known - at least Smith has not been able to provide those numbers to Congress.

I asked O'Keefe where the money is going to come from to make all of this happen. First, what would be required to take the OSP from the CRV capability - the final CTV capability. O'Keefe replied that there would not be "two different vehicles" - that the same vehicle that meets CRV requirements would be flown as a CTV. The issue at hand in the move from CRV to CTV mode is the human-rating of the launch system (presumed to be an EELV) for the OSP. I asked O'Keefe if this was just a probabilistic exercise or if some engineering (and funding ) was required to make it happen. O'Keefe said that he was a bit fuzzy on this but did not feel that it would take much, noting that the overall OSP cost number he had in mind I had attributed to Dennis Smith was "similar". He added that the OSP "will never be an operational vehicle - it will always be an experimental vehicle - it will not be a routine asset."

In addition to the OSP, NASA's interest in having a cargo capability that took on some or all of the current Shuttle fleet's responsibilities is going to require some funds. I asked O'Keefe if this will require additional money. O'Keefe said "we'll see".

I then asked O'Keefe to comment on studies which are reportedly underway at Code B wherein consideration was being given to retiring the Shuttle sooner rather than later. O'Keefe would not say whether this was- or was not an issue under consideration. However, he did say that the SLEP (Shuttle Life Extension Program) was still being implemented, and that "there are a range" of SLEP options under consideration. “We are looking to organize all ideas in a priority order." He noted that the Shuttle fleet will still be flying both human crews and cargo for some time to come.

O'Keefe cautioned that seeking to hastily replace one asset with another - one that does all things for all people would not be wise "Frankly if you read history the results of decisions made a long time ago, by putting many capabilities in one single asset, you end up with asset that performs all things minimally well - not as well if you had a stand alone asset. This approach - also creates enormous complexity."

The question of wings vs. capsule on the OSP arose (as it always does). O'Keefe said "contractors have been told that there is no NASA preference for any configuration. There is no NASA fondness for this or that design."

As for the pace at which the procurement process will proceed for the OSP, O'Keefe said "we are using acquisition reform legislation enacted a few years back. This is a very streamlined process that is using best practices . We have laid out our OSP requirements on a single sheet of paper. The last time anyone saw requirements on one page was the contract to build the Wright Flyer."

O'Keefe noted that other agencies had been taking some note of OSP procurement and that “this may serve as a model for how we do other acquisitions in the future."


Shortly after the meeting with reporters broke up, China ended the speculation and announced that it would orbit a single human aboard Shenzhou V on 15 October 2003. Speaking minutes before this news broke, O'Keefe said that in so doing, "China will have accomplished something that only two other nations on this planet have done. From what I have seem reported [their capabilities] are pretty impressive. Their objectives and intentions are an assertion of national sovereignty and demonstrate an ability to develop technology to achieve broader objectives."

Exploration and the White House

Several reporters tried to pry some tidbits out of O'Keefe as to what the White House is looking at in terms of new exploration policies, and when such announcements might be made. One reporter asked if NASA had been asked for input into the President's State of the Union Speech next year.

As he has done many times in the past when it comes to intra-White House deliberations, O'Keefe, the dutiful representative of a White House which tends to be tight-lipped on such things, said simply that any options are being considered and developed such that they can be put in front of the President and that he “would not presume to suggest" how and when the President might make mention of any decisions in this regard. "I am faithfully carrying options to the President". In other words ‘no comment'.

The Soyuz Gap

O'Keefe was asked how NASA was dealing with the fact that the current ISS MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) deals with Soyuz and Progress vehicle provision by Russia until some time in 2006. The earliest an OSP could appear on the scene to replace or augment Soyuz (but not Progress) is 2008. This leaves a gap of several years (under ideal circumstances) or perhaps longer under which no agreement exists whereby Russia will continue to provide Progress and Soyuz spacecraft. With only several limited exceptions, the Iran Non-proliferation Act bars the US from overtly buying these services from Russia.

O'Keefe took a slightly new tact in responding to this popular question (John Glenn prodded O'Keefe in this very same issue at a NASA Advisory Council meeting last year). In response to being asked the question, this time he countered with "nothing specifies what happens in the case of an accident - yet we are doing that too. There are many things such as additional Progress vehicles that are outside the scope of this commitment (MOU) - yet it is working."

When asked if this will be on the agenda for discussion at a heads of agency meeting next week in Russia (after the Soyuz TM-3 launch) O'Keefe said “my anticipation is that we will discuss this issue as we have before and will continue to do so in the future."

Word has it that the Duma has now provided the Russian space program with enough funds to start work on the Solar Power Tower. Once lofted, this element would give Russia the ability to more or less control the ISS - a bargaining point they can be counted upon to use as the Soyuz gap approaches.

Fresh Blood

The question of workforce augmentation came up. O'Keefe replied that this is a prime concern noting that "the average age at NASA is my age - 47." He continued "30 % of this agency is eligible to retire." O'Keefe then mentioned a new Corporate Recruitment Initiative (CRI) which was announced a few days ago that seeks to recruit new talent - "for the entire agency - not just one center." He added “we are anxious for Congress to act on pending legislation. We also have an endorsement from the largest union that represents NASA." O'Keefe expressed some frustration with members of Congress who O'Keefe described as showing enthusiasm in hearings but who seem to loose that enthusiasm once the hearing is over.

Let's Fly the Boss

One reporter asked a question about something I have also been hearing - with a ground zero for the rumor at JSC: that the agency would fly a passenger of "high value" in the first Shuttle mission after the accident so as to demonstrate confidence in its flight worthiness. O'Keefe was asked to respond to one subset of the rumor that he would be the 'high value' passenger to fly on that mission fly.

This elicited quite a chuckle from O'Keefe, a self-avowed, non-rocket scientist. He then said "I maintain that our objective is to assign folks to the crew who are trained and competent to carry out those mission objectives." O'Keefe said "I am clearly not competent. Anyone who is not competent will not be considered for flight. We can't have bystanders up there. Everyone has to be competent."

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