Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2003
QUESTION: Admiral Gehman, we have here details--finding on details, a recommendation. If you have to tell the American people briefly what caused that accident that day, what are you willing to say in a few words?
GEHMAN: In a few words, I would say there were two causes to the accident. The first cause was the foam that came off and hit the reinforced carboned (ph) carbon. The second was the loss within NASA of its system of checks and balances.
QUESTION: This week, my daughter Amy is at the NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. Would anyone have any special words to help a child and student like her to help her understand what happened?
GEHMAN: Dr. Widnall, would you like to take that on?
GEHMAN: Well, the reason I pick on Dr. Widnall is because she deals with students and she has actually lectured us on the floor on what the students expect.
And so, Dr. Widnall, I'll ask you to answer that.
WIDNALL: Well, I think it is the case that space and the idea of space is really a great motivator for young people. I don't think there's any question about that. And I think--I certainly view one of my jobs as an educator is to take that basic motivation and turn it into what I would view as responsible engineering, recognizing that the passion that we have for space flight needs to be realized in a system that can responsibly execute these programs. So--and that may be a big mouthful for your daughter, but that's my view on the whole issue.
LOGSDON: Could I add a...
GEHMAN: Sure, absolutely. Dr. Logsdon, another educator.
LOGSDON: If you look at the backgrounds of the board members, the 13 of us, nine of the 13 had very little or no involvement with NASA or with space flight before they became members of the board. All 13 in the report are unanimous in the importance of continuing human space flight.
None of us have come to the conclusion that it is not worth the risk and not worth the money, and I think that message is one of the positive messages that ought to come out of this report.
GEHMAN: Thank you very much.
QUESTION: I have a question about two of your return-to-flight recommendations that involve the thermal protection system. One of them calls on NASA to eliminate all external foam debris and the second asks NASA to initiate a program to increase the ability of the orbiter to sustain debris hits.
As I read this carefully, both of those look like they allow a fair amount of wiggle room for the agency because it asks only that you initiate an aggressive program. Does that mean that before the orbiters resume flights that those improvements should be in place or only that NASA begin an action program to do so?
GEHMAN: The recommendations--our study, after months and months of this, leads us to believe that it's unreasonable to require as a return-to-flight item that they eliminate all debris shedding from the launch stack. There will always be some ice.
And the application of the insulating foam on the external tank is really a very difficult process to do. And so that recommendation aims at the problem that we found that they are not aggressively trying to understand the foam, that they aren't--we found--you remember Doug Arshwarb's (ph) famous experiment in his kitchen, where he discovered some things that--how the foam acts that were contrary to what was published in some NASA technical manuals and, et cetera, et cetera.
GEHMAN: So that is aimed at a continuing nonstop program at understanding how the foam acts with an intent of eliminating debris shedding eventually. But we didn't think that saying that you've got to stop all shedding before you can launch again is reasonable, because that's not how the machine operates. So it is initiate a program with the intent of understanding what causes foam to come off with the ultimate goal of eliminating it.
QUESTION: Does that apply also to (OFF-MIKE)
GEHMAN: That's correct.
But both of those get at our problem--one of our problems with NASA engineers is that, because the money has all dried up in research development, they aren't even trying to find out what the materials do. And so that's what that recommendation's (inaudible)
WALLACE: May I add something?
GEHMAN: OK. Very quickly, Steve.
WALLACE: I think you have to take it all into context. I mean there's an extensive set of recommendations on-orbit repair. One point, that is a flat return to flight, not an initial return to flight, on-orbit repair. And you know, so, of course, the board is attempting working to eliminate the source of the debris, improve the ability to tolerate a strike should it happen. And of course the most critical thing is perhaps the falling bipod, which NASA--you will never see another bipod ramp on this vehicle (inaudible) bipod ramp.
You know, there's a lot of work in progress that we're well aware of and have been following in addition to what's simply on those recommendations.
QUESTION: I guess for General Barry and anyone else who cares to weigh in. I'm wondering if you had an emotional reaction to this report? It's a pretty powerful document. That what you found as you plowed through this institution make you angry or sad?
BARRY: That's a tough question. I mean, after seven and a half months of looking at this thing you can't help but get emotionally connected to not only the people, but the organization.
And as Steve Turcotte mentioned, you know, you really do find an agency that is just full of outstanding, superior, well-motivated individuals. But anytime you deal with an agency in crisis, you really find out what the guts of the organization is made up of.
And one of the things that we want to make sure that we leave here, and as the admiral said, is the legacy in honoring the crew that lost their lives. So there's not one day that didn't go by that we didn't pass the photograph of the crew right by the entry to any of our organizations.
And if you have seen any of their recent--it was last night or a couple of nights ago on the History Channel, they had, ``Failure is not an Option.'' We, as a board, went to the museum, the Aerospace Museum, and saw the International Space Station movie. All those combined that brought home the reality of the significance of what we were trying to do and provide the tools, the recommendations, and certainly the ability that NASA can get back to fly and we can get human space flight back in orbit. You cannot do that without getting emotionally connected.
GEHMAN: Dr. Widnall?
WIDNALL: I think the board set a rather high target for itself. Certainly from my point of view, I wanted to make sure that we were not just the second report on a shelf to be joined by a third report relating to an accident caused by the same factors that we had become aware of during our study. So I think we tried to be more comprehensive.
GEHMAN: OK. Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Admiral, or whoever wants to join in on this one. The folks at NASA have been preparing themselves for a big shock over the last few months, and Administrator O'Keefe has gone so far as to say the report is going to be ugly.
QUESTION: You've put it on the table now. Is it ugly?
GEHMAN: I would not characterize it as ugly. Certainly, I would say, however, that the board was well aware that in the world in which NASA and all other big bureaucracies operate that if you really want to make them change something, sometimes you have to be rather dramatic with your reasons for making them change. And so, we tried to write a complete report. It's possible that we repeated ourselves a couple of times in there, but we did that for emphasis because we know how hard it is for big organizations to change.
Most all of us from this board have experience, either in the past or present, with running big organizations and we know how hard it is to get organizations to change. So we added some things in there for emphasis. We repeated some things for emphasis. And someone might construe that as ugly, but I don't construe it as ugly.
I view this report as clinical and technical and not unnecessarily ugly.
QUESTION: You said that the debate over how soon we replace the shuttle is a matter left to the nation and the Congress, but on the question of how long this shuttle can fly, sounds like you're saying quite awhile if you're talking about recertification by 2010 and then talking about the mid term maybe 15 years out or so. That sounds like well into the next decade if these changes are made.
GEHMAN: We didn't put a year on it, but we did make recommendations along the lines that you indicated, that if you intend to fly this thing beyond the short term, if you intend to fly it for 10 or 15 more years, there are a large number of things that need to be done in order to do that safely.
We didn't put a time certain on it. We did editorialize, however. It's not a recommendation, but it's in our comments section in chapter nine that we believe that another vehicle, either a complement or a replacement, is a very, very high priority.
As a matter of fact, we kind of criticize--we don't kind of--we criticize the United States for finding ourselves in a position where we are right now where we don't even have a vehicle on the drawing boards. And we are critical of that process. So we do have some sense of urgency that another human carrying vehicle needs to come along fairly quickly.
But no, we didn't put a time limit on how long we think the shuttle will last. We do believe that it can be operated in the mid term if we make the changes that we said.
(UNKNOWN): Let me add just one quick thought to that.
We say if the country intends to fly the shuttle past 2010, it needs to go through recertification. It's possible it will not pass the recertification.
GEHMAN: Or that it'll be too expensive.
GEHMAN (?): So I think we've come out kind of agnostic on how long it should fly depending on what happens when you take the close look at it.
WALLACE (?): And by the way, this is not the board not taking a position. That is our position. I mean, we spent hours on this exactly how we should characterize our position on how long the United States should use the shuttle.
And our position is that a), we are very disappointed that there's not a replacement vehicle at least on the drawing boards, and b), if you're going to fly it in the midterm you've got to change your management scheme, and if you're going to fly it beyond 2010, if you're going to fly it beyond 2010, you need to requalify it as a system or recertify it.
So this is not a non-position, this is a strong position, and might be a very expensive one.
QUESTION: My question has to do with the desired chain of command for safety. I guess I'm a little confused from reading the report exactly how this technical engineering authority would fit into the scheme.
Would this be like a separate entity with its own administrator, or would it be under the umbrella of NASA with some authority or chain of command that you could flesh out a little bit?
TURCOTTE: Let me give you an example.
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