Columbia Accident Investigation Board News Conference 4 March 2003 - Part 2

Status Report From: CAIB
Posted: Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Part | 1 | 2 | 3 |

We have two board members on group two; Major General Ken Hess, who is the head of the United States Air Force Safety Center.

Last week I traveled to Kennedy Space Center with several of our investigators. General Hess did not join us on that trip. We, with all the groups, began at the reconstruction facility--that's sort of the focal point of the investigation even for those of us who are slightly less involved in the hardware aspects of the investigation. Our group met with the launch readiness review chairman. We're looking, our group, in addition to operations and training, has the certification of flight readiness process, the on-orbit MMT aspects, as well as mission payloads.

So our focus in the trip to Kennedy was, among other things, on the involvement of the Kennedy people in the flight readiness review. There is a launch readiness review, just sort of the typical time line here, which is conducted at Kennedy, deals with the facilities infrastructure and the processing part of the orbiter, and that is typically a few days before the more formal flight readiness review, which is typically a couple of weeks before launch date, with the flight readiness review being the process that ends with the certification, signatures at the associate administrative level at NASA. So we met with the chairman of the launch readiness review and the other people involved in that down at Kennedy.

We also met with the final inspection team. There's a group that goes out to the pad in the early morning, just in the hours before the launch, and they makes a last, final exterior inspection, looking for anything out of the usual. It's a top-to-bottom visual check and also infrared scanning check of the entire stacked assembly looking for ice, debris, anything out of the ordinary.

And we met with the launch director and went through the launch control facility and all the processes they went through down there. Without going into great detail, I can say that everything was nominal through the launch process. An interesting focus of the launch director was that he was particularly concerned with security issues. Obviously, I think a combination of the world situation and an Israeli astronaut, he said, "Well, one thing that was different about this mission was the extreme security precautions."

The same team that does the final inspection also does the launch day video review. And so, they have 19 cameras focused on the shuttle as it lifts off and they immediately grab tapes from 19 cameras and go put them into a composite and write a quick report on what they saw on the first day and we went through all that.

They have different categories of things they look for; categories of major anomalies, anomalies, and another category called funnies, anything that's not quite normal. And then, just observations, and everything on the day of the STS-107 launch was in the observation category. Ice sheds off of the umbilical, which is the lower point, where the fueling from the external tank goes into the orbiter. It's a perfectly normal procedure. They see frost in certain areas. There are light, almost cellophane-like wrappings that protect certain fittings which are expected to just blow off and do, and they expect to see minor scorching of the bottom of the external tank. So all of those. They gave us the report on that, and everything was as they expected.

We also went to the space station processing facility because they have a role in payloads. Most of the missions are to the space station. This one was a science mission and did not go to the station. But they utilize the same facilities for processing of payloads. So we went through to see how that process worked and discuss in some detail the types of payloads and possible connections with the way they were connected to the orbiter. I would say that there are basically payloads in three areas on this mission:

We have the SPACEHAB double module SPACEHAB, which is when you see the astronauts doing the Superman flight up and down and when they send the videos from space, that's in and out of the SPACEHAB. And then there's the FREESTAR platform on the back, which is outside of the SPACEHAB, and not handled by anybody in space. And then up on the mid-deck, where some of the crew lives, there are also some experimental payloads there as well.

So we went through their process, looking at anything that's new, anything that's different in terms of their very detailed approval process for carrying of payloads, with a strong focus on any inner connections to the orbiter, electrical or fluid connections, and that process goes on. I will say that payload issues are not off the table, but I think I could say they're sort of getting close to the edge. In other words, we've done a lot of work and haven't seen anything significant so far.

I would say an intense area of focus for our group is now going to be on the flight readiness view and the mission management team in general. Hess is really leading an effort to focus in on that area and will probably be doing a lot of interviews in the next week or two on that. You've heard lots of discussion about dispositions of prior foam events. To the extent that that enters into the flight readiness review process, we would be involved in that, and then all of the much discussed e-mails and decisions to call in DOD assets. And on again off again, we will be very thoroughly running all of that to ground.

Another area which Admiral Gehman has asked our group to look at is conditions for return to flight, and I would say, we will sort of divide conditions to return to flight into two categories:

There's the big picture of ultimately who should go into space and why, and that is beyond our purview at the moment. I think, as Admiral Gehman has said, we would intend to perhaps frame the debate in that area, but not provide answers. What I think you will see this board do is provide more short-term return to flight recommendations; that is focused on what would be necessary to return to flight sufficiently to at least ensure the continued viability of the international space station. And while we don't have answers on what these recommendations will be at this point, I think here I can draw on my experience in the civil aviation sector, and I would add that the FAA where I come from, we're being strongly assisted in this investigation by the NTSB at many levels.

NTSB is down at the reconstruction, NTSB investigators are on our team and we have some NTSB senior aviation management people who are advising the board. And so, in the civil aviation process, I'm usually on the receiving end of the recommendations from them. In this case, I'll perhaps be on the sending end of the recommendations. But I think you can anticipate a process similar to what you would see in civil aviation in which it would be to focus on both eliminating whatever specific failure you identify, perhaps even without determining that it was causal in the accident, eliminating specific failures, and then either reducing the consequences of those failures or designing in an ability to tolerate those failures.

So I think that sort of approach which we see in civil aviation, if we have short circuit that causes a spark to ignite a fuel tank, where we try to eliminate the short circuit, a worn wire, whatever, we also try to inert the fuel tank ultimately. In other words, you want to eliminate the failure and tolerate the failure. I think that same general approach we'd expect to use in these circumstances.

That's all.

GEHMAN: Thank you very much, gentlemen.

We'll just make one or two closing comments.

Once again, the board is enormously grateful to the thousands of people who are out searching for debris. Debris remains very important to us. Last week we had on an average day, we had over 4,000 people out searching for debris and over a dozen helicopters or fixed-wing airplanes in the search.

The NTSB is integrated into our program. We're very thankful to them. We're very thankful to the states that are continuing to help us by running down reports of sightings. The Navy has been working its way through all of those lakes in east Texas and have found a number of important things under water--Navy divers have. We're very grateful to them.

The specific searches, and particularly around Nevada, have not turned up anything yet, but we do have very, very good radar tracking data that indicates that something fell off the orbiter and fell in the area of this position near Caliente, Nevada and we're going to continue to search in that area.

I apologize for the rather long introduction, but I'll be glad to take your questions now.

QUESTION: Can you clarify the damage to the tires that you talked about? A couple of questions. First of all, are both tires on the left side damaged or are both of them damaged--the ones you found on the left side? And secondly, are you convinced that this damage to the tires did occur in orbit or while the shuttle was returning as opposed to post, after it broke up? And thirdly, one follow-up, also. And if it did, in fact, occur in orbit, what could that have caused--what would that have meant?

TURCOTTE: Well, let me answer the first one. Both tires on the left side look fairly similar, and they have extreme--just visually, they look like they've gone through extreme trauma; whereas, the one on the right side is more typical of what I understand is a more normal aircraft accident where it has a blow-out in one area and the rest of the tire is mostly intact.

Also, we see that the threads are basically pulled apart and then have heat damage to them at some later point, which would indicate that the heat damage was probably coming from the reentry. So we would expect that it would be either as the shuttle broke up or shortly there afterwards that it might have blown. We're not certain. I used the word possibly twice just to make sure that you understood that I wasn't saying that they blew up inside the wheel well. But we don't know for certain exactly what that timing was, but it is possible that they, in fact, did.

GEHMAN: But let me follow up on that and let me ask Roger to--we have telemetry from the wheel well up until the time of loss of signal that indicates that those tires were intact, they had the right air pressure and they had the right temperature. So whatever happened happened after the loss of signal.

QUESTION: Do you mean the loss of the original signal or the additional 30 seconds of data?

GEHMAN: The original loss of signal, as NASA's calling it.

QUESTION: For Mr. Tetrault. Looking at the aluminum you found on the tiles and the other edges there, can you give us any sense of how much aluminum was found on those--sort of a percentage of how that would be different, and if that also is indicative of pre-event or post--during-event or post-event heating?

TETRAULT: The aluminum that we're seeing we're seeing in a variety of different places. We're seeing it as a black deposit, if you will, that's on the tiles, which appears to be aluminum.

It has trace elements that indicate it may be aluminum 2024, which are part of the support structures that we're dealing with. The kind of slag that we're seeing on the inside of some of the RCC panels also includes aluminum. I don't know exactly whether that is coming from the event or whether it's coming from reentry heating, and that's something that we still have to work on yet and try to refine our thinking on how that is. This information was brand new as of last night around 6:00 p.m., so we've got some work to do in trying to refine that.

QUESTION: You said there was a hole on the--I think, it's the elevon actuator. Is that right?

TETRAULT: It's the left elevon actuator, the inboard side.

QUESTION: I'm trying to think if that hole is caused by something coming off while the shuttle's in reentry before breakup; what the position of that actuator would be; how exposed it is to wing and front of it; whether it's the underside or the overside of the wing that it's exposed to, et cetera.

TETRAULT: The appearance of it--we haven't done any metal or graphic examination anywhere near the area of the hull. We just took some samples this weekend. I was on the phone over the weekend with Kennedy just trying to determine what quick samples we might be able to run and get some useful information out of. And where we have an item that we have a concern that by destructively evaluating, we may lose information that we weren't smart enough to think about getting initially. We're going to be very conservative about taking those pieces until we know exactly what we want to find out from the piece, which is one of the reasons why we haven't tested around the area of this hole in the elevon.

There are technical people who speculate that the hole was really part of the reentry process, the result of it. It looks like the way that that might fly--the piece that we have might fly in reentry--that it's entirely possible that it could have occurred there. We don't know for certain, won't know for sometime.

GEHMAN: Let me make a comment here because a saw a couple of you shaking your head at one of the things that Mr. Tetrault said during his statement, and it gets to this question.

Right now, we've got all these random pieces and we're seeing all these marks and chars and destruction. It will be useful to us when we get an identical piece from the right wing and the left wing and we can see if there's a difference for how they looked. For example, if we get a right wing elevon and it has certain marks on it, we might attribute those marks, as Roger has said, to the normal effects of the vehicle breaking up, and then this piece entering the atmosphere. But then we looked at the left elevon and it has all those things plus other marks; it's the plus other ones that lead us toward the investigation.

So until we get a couple of identical pieces--that's why the tires are so important. We have all six tires now and we have two of the landing gears. We have the complete nose landing gear complete, and pieces of the others.

Isn't that right, Roger? We've got a couple of struts.

TETRAULT: We have pieces. That piece that we found of the strut, we are fairly certain now is, in fact, from the left side. We have an upper strut that we have no certainty of exactly which side it came from, and may never have any certainty of which side it came from.

GEHMAN: But as the comparative analysis which will be able to help us answer those questions that you're asking. But right now, we just don't know.

TETRAULT: But let me give you one comparison. As I said, if you look at the debris from the right side, you can see that there is significant damage to the right side from re-entry. We see the black deposits on the right side, not to the extent that we see it on the left side, but it's on the right side as well, which means you had molten aluminum being sprayed or deposited onto those tiles on the right side where the event was not occurring. That's a very hot reentry.

QUESTION: Can you tell us a little bit more about this picture--the picture of debris of tiles that came from the left main landing wheel gear door last week? And what does the damage on that tile tell you about how the heat may have circulated on that part of the v-coil and how temperatures may have evolved?

TETRAULT: Let me talk to two of those things from last week. I think first there was the rubber tile and it looked like there was almost heat coming up underneath that tile. One of the things that we observed when we went down there and started looking at a lot more tile is that a lot of tiles look like that. And in fact, that seems to be a way that they fracture and the way that they remove themselves from the skin of the aircraft. They leave a piece of the RTV and the felt pad behind and a piece of the tile and they kind of break out in a conical section.

You can almost take some of those tiles and go over and replace them over the top of this cone that you see, and I feel certain at some point we'll actually find one that matches. So the rubber tile is a little bit less interesting than we started out.

The other piece which we talked about last week, which was the left inboard wheel well frame on the forward side had an area in the aluminum frame which looked like very hot air was blowing out of the wheel well and laterally across the normal airflow. So it would be 90 degrees perpendicular to the airflow. We've added two subsequent pieces to that which have now given us the entire frame of the inside door well, which I mentioned to you we now have but we have no pieces of the door itself.

I would also like to say that as we look at this and try to analyze what's happening, it's going to be equally as important to recognize what we don't have as to what we do have, because the stuff that started coming off out of California and Nevada and Utah, we're not going to have unless somebody finds it out there. And that, in fact, is going to be some kind of a clue as to where the breach occurred.

QUESTION: Mr. Tetrault, in your list of items that you discovered and analyzed, I'm wondering which offers the most encouragement to you in the pursuit of the heat that you are seeking? Which pieces are particularly tantalizing, and why?

TETRAULT: Well, there are ones that are just interesting, and in one way, we're in a kind of a purely speculative situation; that is the slag on the RCCs and how does it blow forward and how do you get the stainless steel and the aluminum up onto the back edge, if you will, of an RCC when, in fact, that stainless steel was behind the area. So that to me is a little bit intriguing and something that we'll have to spend some time.

I think the question that was asked about that panel where it appears to be blowing out and going laterally, that may be a late event. It may have something to do with the tires. You know, we don't know at this particular point. But as we read these things, eventually, I think we'll get answers for those questions.

QUESTION: A question for Mr. Tetrault or Mr. Wallace. Looking at these e-mails that bounced around at various levels but never seemed to get high enough, this may be a culture issue.

Mr. Tetrault, you have long experience in the nuclear field. There are nuclear near misses where there were lower-level people who did not bounce things up, who may have had cultural reasons not to do it, were afraid of repercussions, were afraid of looking silly, afraid of losing their jobs. Have you gotten to the stage of looking at the culture of NASA or looking at whether there's a written procedural flaw here that prevented this from rising to an appropriate level?

WALLACE: I'll give Roger a brief break. No, we haven't, but I also think that that is something that Admiral Gehman is probably going to charge the players to be named later--group to look at. You know, as I say, we will be running those e-mails to ground, getting the whole sort of factual story. I'm clear and interviewing all the people that were in that decision-making on again, off again process to understand what they decided and why. You know, I think beyond that into the sort of the more root cultural management issues, that's actually a topic which is somewhat shared across the board, and I think also expected to be given to the new group.

TETRAULT: Can I finish that question?

GEHMAN: Go ahead.

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