Transcript of NASA Press Conference on the Space Shuttle Columbia with Sean O'Keefe (part 4)

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Wednesday, August 27, 2003

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QUESTION: Mr. O'Keefe, Peter King, with CBS News Radio.

Yesterday, we read the report, of course, and there were lines in there that expressed pessimism that NASA would be able to change, and in an interview after the report was issued, Admiral Gehman told my colleague, Bill Harwood, that some are or will be in denial about the changes needed and the flaws in the system.

What message have you or will you send to those particular people at NASA?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, again, and this is reminiscent of some of the earlier comments that we have shared here, this is tough stuff, and we shouldn't be a bit surprised when engineers, and technical folks and all of the rest of us as colleagues here in NASA act like all other human beings doing, which is, when you hear something, it really is tough, and it's hard to accept that it takes a little effort to work through it. And that's exactly what we've been really endeavoring to do in the last few months here is just kind of steeling ourselves for what we asked for, which was an unvarnished position, a very direct report, take off the gloves and let us know what's wrong.

We didn't ask Admiral Gehman and his colleagues to tell us what's so right about this place. I mean, that's something that has, you know, again, been widely viewed as "overthought" of. We got that point. The issue is we really wanted to know, in a very clear, distinctive way, exactly what they thought was flawed about the way we do business, what caused this accident, what were the contributing factors, all of the other things that may go to it, and they complied with that, and they did it with great skill, and it could--I can't imagine what the deliberations among the Board members must have been over these past several months.

Trying to get 13 very, very smart, very thoughtful, very Type A people to come to closure on a set of views could not have been an easy task. And you can see that they really worked through some very differing approaches that ultimately came to a very crisp set of conclusions. So I think that's something we've got to work through, and this is part of the process we've been engaged in for the last few months is kind of strapping ourselves in for the fact this was going to be an unvarnished view and a very clinical, direct, straightforward position, and it has been.

We got what we asked for, and there's no question that we now need to go about the process of all of the steps that it takes in order to accept those findings and to comply with those recommendations, and that's a commitment we're not going to back off of.

QUESTION: Todd Halvorson of Florida Today.

Now that you have had the CAIB report for 25 hours, and given the fact that you've gotten a good head start on your return-to-flight activities, what are your thoughts now about your ability to make that March through April window for return to flight next year, and what are your thoughts about when you can get to core complete?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, the answer to both is we'll see. From the technical hardware standpoint, all of the assessments we've gone through here in the last couple three months are there are a number of options that would certainly permit an opportunity after the new year to look at a return-to-flight set of objectives, and we've reviewed those with the Board. They're aware of that activity, and that's underway.

The larger questions I think that are raised in this report, too, that deal with some of the management systems, the processes, the procedures, the, again, the culture of how we do business, we really have to set this bar higher than what they did, what anybody would do. The standards that we are expecting of ourselves, we need to be our toughest critics on that. And so those are going to be a little more difficult to I think assess in terms of a calendar or a time line, in terms of when they're done, and instead I think it's going to be a case where, when we've made the judgment that we are fit to fly, that's when it's going to occur.

Now, we're not going to just do this in isolation or a vacuum. We've asked a very impressive group of 27 folks who are part of the Tom Stafford and Dick Covey's Return-to-Flight Task Group to help us work through those options and assure that we're not just, you know, drinking our own bath water on this or singing ourselves to sleep on the options we love the most, you know.

It's a case where we really want to lay out the full range of things we're going to do and have their assessment of whether they think that passes the sanity check. And that group of folks, I would suggest to you, if you haven't had the opportunity to do so, to look at the varied backgrounds that those 27 people bring, not only the technical and engineering and I think smart folks on the hard sciences side, but also a lot of management experts, a lot of folks who have dealt with large organizations, dealt with culture change.

Walter Broadnax, who was the deputy secretary in the last administration for the Health and Human Services, is a member of that. He is now the president of Clark Atlanta University. This is a guy who has been through several different organizational shifts working for the State of New York, working for the last administration at HHS, and so forth, dealing with very large organizations, understanding management culture change requirements.

Richard Danzig, who was the last Secretary of the Navy in the last administration, as well, was a member of this.

Ron Fogleman, who was the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, who really set some standards in the Khobar Tower incident over what accountability standards should be adhered to within the Air Force, is a member of this group.

So if you work through every one of those, what you find are folks that aren't just--or I shouldn't say "just"--it's not dominated by a group of folks looking strictly at the engineering-hardware kinds of challenges. It's also looking at these larger systems process changes, and those are the kind of folks that have been added to this, including a number of academics who have written about it, and thought about it, and worked through it like Dr. Vaughn and others, colleagues of hers, who have really looked at organization change issues and, in turn, are going the help us really think through this.

And they've been there, done that, gotten several T-shirts and recognized lots of tendencies on the part of organizations or institutions to select options that may or may not be more or less convenient. They're going to be good sanity checkers as we work through that, and those are the kinds of people I think that their judgment will be invaluable as we work up to that inevitable return-to-flight milestone.

MR. MAHONE: And the complete list of those members are at You can go to that and find their bios and so forth.

A question right here.

QUESTION: Jim Oberg with NBC.

I'd like to ask a question on culture and the issues of intellectual isolation of the NASA community from the outside world. The Board and other people have mentioned words, from the Board example, self-deception, introversion, diminished curiosity about the outside world, NASA's history of ignoring external recommendations.

These are some pretty serious charges, and people have seen evidence of it. The Board did and other people have mentioned it, too. You have a situation where people who are here now are almost hunkering down into a siege mentality, where outside critics are cold and timid souls whose views should be ignored.

How can you get the people to become what the Board wants you to be, a learning organization like that, when many of the same people who have been immersed in this culture for all of their working lives are the ones designing, developing and judging the success of your recovery process?

MR. O'KEEFE: Again, you have accurately recited what are the findings of the Board and their overarching view of what they have deemed or viewed to be the culture within the agency.

The first step in any process is to accept the findings and to comply with those recommendations, and I think Admiral Gehman had been very fond of saying to the Board, "T equals zero," zero meaning anything that happened after February 1st is not something they're looking at. They're really focused on examining that.

Well, to NASA today, T equals zero starts today, and we've really got to work our way through accepting those findings and complying with those recommendations and that will be the beginnings I think of sorting our way through these larger institutional challenges. I think the questions and comments and observations made by your colleagues here, as well as in my statements at the opening of this, suggest we've got to being that process and work with what is a very professional group of folks throughout this agency, who I think can step up and accept those responsibilities, and we all have, in working through this, and recognizing that this is a institutional set of failures that must be addressed.

I don't see that the reticence on the part of any individual in this agency is going to be a setback in that regard. We've just got to work through that very methodically, very deliberately, very consistently, and employing a principle of the United States Marine Corps that I always found to be pretty pointed, which is "repeated rhythmic insult." If you always say the same thing, and you mean it, and you keep going at it, and you stick with that set of principles and values and discipline, it's going to resonate in time, and in time means sooner rather than later in order for us to really reconcile and come to grips with these findings, and accept them, and comply with those recommendations.

MR. MAHONE: Question, here.

QUESTION: Bill Glanz, Washington Times. I just want to find out what your gut reaction was while you were reading that part. For instance, were you appalled at some of the decisions that the program managers made, and also, when you were reading it, did you have any "holy crap" moments?


MR. O'KEEFE: I've had so many of those since February 1st I can't count them all any more.

Again, this was not a surprise. Among the emotions that I felt in reading through this, surprise was not among them, because again, they were very faithful in what they said they would do. Admiral Gehman and every member of that Board were very, very clear in the course of their proceedings of saying, "What we're telling you and what we're inquiring about in these public hearings is what you will read in this report." Very explicit about that. They never walked away from that point. Again, talking about repeated rhythmic insult, that was, a repetitive commentary that they followed through on and did precisely what they said they were going to do.

So in reading through this, and again, our approach from day one, from the 1st of February on, was again to be as open as we possibly could conceive of being, release all of the information for everybody to see what was going on. So reading lots of the discourse and back and forthing and communication that went on that are now faithfully repeated in the report, was not the first time I'd read them, because we released them a lot here, and they talked about them a lot in the hearings, and so in the course of this, I think the terminology they used was very consistent with what I heard in the course of all those public hearings.

And after 22, 23 hearings that lasted on average three-and-a-half to four hours each, that was a lot of volume. So really, distilling all of that and coming up with a report that was as succinct as this is, that it was only 248 pages by comparison to the thousands of pages of transcripts from all those hearings, was really the part that I found most impressive, was they were able to distill this into a very pointed set of findings and recommendations.

But surprise was not among them, and there was nothing that I saw there that they had not previously talked about. They were very, very conscientious about following through on that commitment and they did what they said they were going to do.

QUESTION: [Off microphone] -- appalled by some of the decisions that the program managers made, you know, being pressured by the long schedule, and all the missed opportunities that they mentioned in the report?

MR. O'KEEFE: Again, I mean the course of this. There have been countless hearings that I've been a witness at. There have been lots of different opportunities where we have gotten together among your colleagues in the press corps to discuss several of the events as we've walked through this in the last seven months. At each one of those there were plenty of cases in which you said, gosh, how could this have happened? But there's no question. None of it was a new revelation in that regard. It has been all by degrees over time in these last six, seven months, you know, rolling out and laying out in ways that we have really seen institutionally as well as with the hardware, as well as human failures were that led to this.

By all means, they are a guidepost to figuring out exactly how you improve that communicate net, sharpen the decision-making process that informs, decision-making that includes all the information that's necessary to make those kinds of judgments at the time, and I think that's exactly what we saw come out of this.

QUESTION: Chris Stolnich from Bloomberg News. I was just wondering if you could describe what you believe the goals for manned space flight are in the wake of this report, and how or if they should change?

MR. O'KEEFE: We are, and have always been, dedicated to exploration objectives which in some instances require a multitude of different capabilities, to include human intervention. What we've laid out is a strategy, a stepping stone approach in which we conquer each of the technical and technology limitations as we pursue greater opportunities. Calls for a sequence of capabilities, which we see playing out right now.

In early January we're going to see two Rovers land on the planet Mars, and it will follow, as it did, several other missions that preceded this, in order to collect and gather the information and the knowledge necessary to inform the opportunity for human exploration at some point.

And as we prepare those capabilities to proceed, we have a more complete knowledge of precisely what it is we're going to encounter, and what will be garnered and gathered from that set of missions and those that will follow, which are robotic, will inform that decision making and inform that understanding and judgment about exactly how human exploration thereafter could be permissible.

The second phase of it though is an important one, because your question I think also speaks to the immediacy of instances and cases in which human involvement is imperative in order to preserve capacity.

Today there's a spirit of debate that's going on, that again, I commend you all for having covered rather broadly, of exactly what is going to be the service life of the Hubble telescope. Just launched on Monday the SIRTF infrared telescope that will be a companion to Hubble, if you will, for all the infrared lower temperature observations and readings that could be observed by that imagery.

But recall that the history of Hubble--which I have not seen very extensively discussed in all the coverage of the current debate about how long Hubble should be operational and what servicing missions are necessary--the history of that was, your predecessors 10 years ago roundly viewed the deployment of that capability as a piece of $1 billion space junk, because it couldn't see. The lens needed correction. It required a Lasik-equivalent surgery. And the only way that could be done was by human intervention. So in 1993 when that mission was launched to correct the Hubble, that was done successfully, and the only way it could be done was because a human being, several of them, spent many, many months training to be prepared for making those corrections on the spot, and for every contingency that could arise as you work through it. It was nothing we could do, adjust from the ground.

The last round trip flight of the Columbia in March of 2002 was to the Hubble again to service it, to install new gyros, to install an infrared camera, to upgrade a number of different factors to it that improved its capacity by a factor of 10, according to all the astronomers who observed this, and they are just elated over the quality of what has come back from this. And yet it turned out that the primary human characteristic that was so important on that mission was embodied by a gent who will be joining us here in about a month, or a matter of fact, weeks--I'm losing track of days here--Dr. John Grunsfeld, who will be our Chief Scientist, and relieving Dr. Shannon Lucid, as she goes back to Johnson Space Center, as our Chief Scientist.

He was on that mission. He's an astrophysicist, got all kinds of incredible scientific background. But his primary human characteristic trait that was most valuable proved to be that all the instruments for adjustment on the Hubble telescope are on the left-hand side. So rather than having, like many of us--righties are stuck with the problem or reaching around the front of your face with a catcher's mitt equivalent capacity to adjust things, and a big bubble over year head, trying to see what's going on--his primary human characteristic that was most valuable is he's a lefty. He's now referred to as "the southpaw savant."

But it was a human characteristic that made those adjustments, that made that capacity work in a way that we never imagined possible, and that 10 years ago we were prepared to write off as garbage. And instead today, it's revolutionizing not only the field of astronomy, but also informing all of us as human beings of the origins of this universe, its progression over time. It has changed the way we look at everything. In the last 18 months it has been a remarkable set of discoveries that have emerged from that capability that would never have been possible were it not for human intervention.

So those are the two areas we really have to focus on, is recognizing how we can advance the exploration opportunities by being informed as deeply as we can through a stepping-stone approach of always developing those capabilities and technologies that then permits the maximum opportunity for human involvement, and then in those cases in which nothing else will do than human intervention and cognitive judgment and determination, and making selections that only humans can do, where do you use those judiciously in order to avoid the unnecessary risk that's attendant to space flight for only those purposes and causes that are of greatest gain.

MR. MAHONE: Right here.

QUESTION: David Chandler with New Scientist Magazine. One thing that the Board explicitly avoided talking about, not because they didn't think it was important but because they didn't see it as their role to do, was issues of personal accountability. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on whether it is your role, and for example, people within the agency who failed to follow NASA's own rules. What kind of a message about the importance of safety will be sent if there is no personal accountability or personal consequences for people who didn't follow your own rules in this mission?

MR. O'KEEFE: Well, first and foremost, I am personally accountable, myself, for all the activities of this agency. I take that as a responsibility and I do not equivocate on that point. I think it is absolutely imperative that we all view our responsibilities, and that one is mine.

The approach I think that is absolutely imperative to follow through with in this institutional change that we've talked about here, and had lots of different comments and observations about, that the report covers in depth, is that you must select folks in leadership and senior management capacities who understand exactly what that set of institutional change requirements are. So rather than saying I'm going to remove so-and-so, it's more a case of, I need to appoint folks who understand that.

At this juncture of the four space flight centers that have any specific activity over Shuttle operations, International Space Station, et cetera, so among the 10 centers there are four that specifically and uniquely deal with space flight operations. The longest-serving tenure center director was appointed in April of 2002. He is now the elder statesman among them. The rest have been appointed since. And those are the folks who are, in my judgment, the kinds of leaders who very clearly understand, they get it, that this is about institutional change. Those are the folks that I fully anticipate are going to be the ones who will be the folks who will carry this out and accomplish the objectives we talked about here today, and they in turn select those managers, engineers, technical folks who share that same ethos.

So as we work through this we've got to be very, very deliberate in relying on the judgment of individuals who have committed to those objectives. And I encourage you to just kind of scan through the senior leadership as well as the senior positions here throughout the agency that have bene conducted, and you'll find a rather significant new management team in those capacities, new leadership team, and all of them share the view that I've just talked about here, which is this is an institutional challenge which is greater than any one of us individually or even collectively. It's about the longer-term values, discipline and principles that this agency should adhere to, and they share those goals and views.

MR. MAHONE: Last question.

QUESTION: Steven Young with I'm wondering if you've actually read the report cover to cover, or whether you intend to do that, and whether you would make it required reading for NASA employees and contractors?

MR. O'KEEFE: I think I don't need to direct that it be required reading. I haven't run into anybody in this agency, any colleague in the organization who have not felt that this is something they want to read in its fullness. So I think no amount of direction from me is going to make a difference. People are doing it because they view that as a responsibility, that we all need to view this is a responsibility that all of us must carry.

I have read through it as of--again, it was a long day yesterday, but I started when Admiral Gehman dropped it off at 10 o'clock yesterday morning, so I had about a one hour head start from his press conference. And again, what I found in reading through it was that it remarkably patterns exactly what they said in all their public statements. So in many respects I was reading the same things I've been hearing, in listening to those public hearings, listening to their public comments. I've got to go back this weekend and read every single word for its content to do that right, but in reading through it briskly, as of yesterday morning and then last night after we left them, after a long session with them, had a chance for several hours to read through it again. But again, it struck me immediately as being remarkably close and right on to what it is they've been saying. So there were no surprises in that regard.

But this weekend, you bet, word for word, from the first page to the last word on page 248 is what I intend to read. I don't need to instruct that anybody in the agency do that. I'll bet everybody is, because I think this is the sense of responsibility we all need to share, and I think that doesn't need to be directed by anybody.

MR. MAHONE: Mr. Administrator, thank you very much, and thank all of you for being here today.

[Whereupon, at 12:31 p.m., the press briefing was concluded.]

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