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CAIB Hearing Transcript 6 March 2003 (Part 1)

Status Report From: CAIB
Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2003

MARCH 6, 2003

BOARD MEMBERS:
Adm. Harold W. Gehman, Jr., Chairman, Columbia Accident Investigation Board
Rear Adm. Stephen Turcotte, Commander, U.S. Naval Safety Center
Maj. Gen. John Barry, Director, Plans and Programs, Headquarters Air Force Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hess, Commander, U.S. Air Force Chief of Safety,
Kirtland Air Force Base
Dr. James Hallock, Aviation Safety Division Chief, U.S. Dept. of Transportation
Dr. Sheila Widnall, Former Secretary of the Air Force,
Professor of Aeronautics, Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT
Steven Wallace, Director of Accident Investigation, Federal Aviation Administration
Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, Commander 21st Space Wing, Peterson Air Force Base
G. Scott Hubbard, Director, NASA Ames Research Center
Bryan O'Connor, NASA Associate Administrator, Office of Safety and Mission Assurance
Theron Bradley, Jr., NASA Chief Engineer, NASA Headquarters, Washington,
Board Executive Secretary

WITNESS:
Gen. Jefferson Howell, Director, Johnson Space Center

View the video stream from the morning session or afternoon session

GEHMAN: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. The first public hearing of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is hereby in session.

We are going to begin our review this morning by talking to two officials of NASA who work here at JSC. And we're going to be talking about organizational and lines-of-responsibility kinds of matters, so we have a clear understanding of who does what and how you get it done and who answers to whom.

We're delighted to be able to start right at the top here at JSC with the center director, General Howell.

Jeff Howell, thank you very much for taking time to be here. And we also are aware that you've got duties that are going to call you away here, and those duties, of course, are related to this accident, for which we are understanding and appreciative.

Before we begin, the way we'll conduct this public hearing is Jeff Howell will--Director Howell will make an opening statement, which we'll be delighted to listen to. Then we'll just simply ask questions, as the board sees fit.

Before we begin, though, Mr. Howell, let me first ask you to affirm that the information that you will provide to this board at this hearing will be accurate and complete to the best of your current knowledge and belief.

HOWELL: I so affirm.

GEHMAN: All right, sir, the floor is yours.

HOWELL: Thank you, Admiral.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to appear before the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. It's now 33 days after the tragic loss of the courageous crew of space shuttle Columbia. We are deeply--we are deeply appreciative of the efforts of the board to determine what caused the loss of Columbia and its crew. And we pledge to continue to cooperate and support your efforts in every possible way.

I'd like to begin by describing Johnson Space Center's role in our nation's space program. Originally named the Manned Spacecraft Center, JSC has served as a focal point for human space exploration since the early 1960s.

The core capabilities resident at JSC since the beginning and continuing today consist of the design, development and test of human spacecraft and human robotics interfaces; planning, execution and control of human spacecraft; selection, training and assignment of astronaut crew members; extravehicular planning of hardware development and training; life science research related to human spaceflight and associated biomedical research; the program management of large-scale human spaceflight hardware development programs; the study and curation of astral materials; and last, but not least, the safety, reliability and quality assurance expertise to support all of these activities.

Within this context, as the director of the Johnson Space Center, I am responsible for providing the shuttle program with the institutional support needed to execute the space shuttle program's mission. The center is accountable for the hardware and software it delivers to the program, as well as the quality and technical content of the analysis products it delivers to the program.

Center management works closely with the space shuttle program manager, Ron Dittemore, and I am regularly apprised of program status and issues as well as personnel and other matters. I will be happy to discuss my understanding of these roles and relationships.

Thank you, sir.

GEHMAN: Thank you very much. I'll ask the first question, since I'm the chairman.

Would you describe for us the lines of authority, the chain of command as we say in the military, the lines of authority that starts with Mr. O'Keefe, a couple of layers above you, or one layer above you, and perhaps one layer or two layers below you?

How does that--describe it, but then if you would expand it to, if there are any branches or sequels (ph), for example, if the money is done differently than the hiring and firing or something like that?

HOWELL: OK. Of course, under Mr. O'Keefe is his deputy administrator, Fred Gregory. And under the two of them, he has his enterprise associate administrators. And Code M, which is the Office of Space Flight, is headed by Bill Readdy. He is my boss. I am one of the Office of Space Flight center directors. We have four: myself, Marshall, Kennedy and Stennis.

And as the center director, below me I have an immediate staff of direct reports, you know, legal, HR, that type. Plus, I have, directors of our major...

(AUDIO GAP)

... life sciences, and then safety and mission assurance--safety, reliability and quality assurance.

So, those are my major activities, and each of them has a director. Under them are their branch managers and so on. So the largest of those directors is our engineering and then our flight crew operations division. Those are the two largest ones I have.

GEHMAN: And Mr. Readdy also has various projects that direct-report to him also. And we're going to hear from one of those projects later, right?

HOWELL: Correct.

GEHMAN: So, that means, then, that the way the wiring diagram works out is that the projects and the centers can operate in parallel with each other, is that a safe way to put it?

HOWELL: That's correct. Of course, under him, he has an associate administrator for these programs, General Mike Kostelnik. He has both the shuttle and the space station programs under him. So he's the direct line of authority to Mr. Dittemore.

However, you know, down at our level, Ron Dittemore and I are literally joined at the hip in the way we function, because a big portion of my center personnel support his activities, and we are intertwined in a very complex organization in that regard.

GEHMAN: Thank you very much.

General Barry, do you want to lead off, since we talking about shuttle support?

BARRY: Yes, sir.

General Howell, good morning.

Could you go into a little more detail--a two-part question, really--responsibilities of the astronaut office in regards to your responsibilities, and then could you outline your role before and after the Columbia mishap?

HOWELL: Certainly. The astronaut office is--the actual office is called Flight Crew Operations Directorate. And under--and this is, Bob Cabana is the head of that. Under him, he has several different divisions, but the major one is the flight crew office, the astronaut office.

And so he is charged, under me, to recruit, select and then train our astronauts to get up to a level where they are designated astronauts. They go through a very vigorous, almost a two-year training program to qualify to go on to become a crew of either a shuttle or a station.

So he's charged with the responsibility. And under him are several activities to do that. He has, you know, an aviation division where he has aircraft that our military air crew have to stay current in. And he has the training aircraft for the astronaut pilots that simulate a reentry of a shuttle. They have that type of a capability. All those things.

And so that's--I'm responsible for all of this. He is accountable. He does this for me, in that regard. Is that--does that answer you question?

BARRY: That's something, I think, that few people understand, the difference between Ron Dittemore's responsibilities and your responsibilities for the astronauts.

HOWELL: Yes. Now, Bob, you know, is--has to make sure--has to ensure that his astronauts are ready to perform their functions for Ron as members of shuttle crews.

We share responsibility in that with our Mission Operations Directorate, though. Because, under our Mission Operations Directorate, they're the ones who actually design the missions and build the whole milestone of activities to prepare for the missions and to conduct the missions.

So, the astronauts actually are trained by members of our Mission Operations Division. That's where they get their specific training for the missions they fly on. And so the MOD, under John Harpol (ph), is really the directorate of mine that does that function for them.

So it's a next step beyond being an astronaut now to train for a mission, you're basically directed and under the auspices of the Mission Operations Division, who plan the mission, and they're the same who control them when they're in space.

BARRY: The second part of the question is, you know, could you explain your responsibilities to the board on the stands (ph), like, what is the center director's role insofar as the shuttle mission is concerned? What were you doing before? And just, kind of, a general outline on what responsibilities would be on any normal launch.

HOWELL: Thank you. I don't have any direct responsibility over the shuttle program or the missions themselves. However, we have--as I said before, we're so intertwined with our activities that I have members of my staff and members of my organization who support all of their activities. So I have a responsibility to make sure that they do their jobs directly.

We also, as part of the budget process, we have activities that are defined by the program that they assign to us, and of course we work out a budget with them. And we are given tasks that we have to perform in support of the program.

And of course, I'm responsible for making sure that--it could be hardware products coming out of engineering, it could be software, and also the activities out of MOD. And I have to--I'm responsible to make sure those are done correctly. So I--that's the type of oversight I have in that regard.

Now, on a higher level, I'm also a member of the Office of Space Flight Management Council, and that is under Mr. Readdy. The members are the center directors and his deputy, or associate administrator, Mr. Kostelnik. And we gather on a regular basis to discuss policy, discuss issues, and we all have a voice in that regard. And that's, you know, another indirect oversight that we have in influencing what might occur or not occur in the shuttle program.

We're also--I am also a member of the Flight Review Board, which meets--Flight Readiness Review, to say it correctly--that we meet approximately two weeks prior to every shuttle mission. And we have a very formal, extensive, comprehensive review of every aspect of the mission.

And I'm a voting member of that board. I sit at the table at the FRR, that is chaired by Mr. Readdy. And it's more on the auspices--as a voting member, I can participate in question-and-answers of any of the people who brief it. And also, I have a vote as--it's more of, I guess, on a level of a board of directors, for--and I sign the certificate for flight. So I do have that type of oversight on a personal level, on a direct level.

BARRY: Thank you.

GEHMAN: Anybody? Ken, you want to be recognized?

HESS: Yes, sir.

One of the constant themes that we see and hear about is (ph) talks about the debate between enough resources and staffing to conduct the mission that we've got here. You've laid out for us a pretty articulate description of a very complex, highly matrixed organization.

Could you go into your personal feelings about staffing versus resources in the mission you've been assigned?

HOWELL: Well, I think we're in good shape. We're--there is a--you know, the majority of our people who work at the Johnson Space Center are contract employees. Just to let you know, on site, on a daily basis, we have about 10,000 people working here every day. Three thousand are civil servants; the other 7,000 are contractor people. And even in the surrounding area, in direct support of our activities, are another 6,000 or so contractors who support our activities. So, it's truly a team effort.

And when you--and when I look at that team that we have right now, I am very pleased. I think we have a very highly qualified, gifted, dedicated and committed team of men and women who support our activities and get the job done.

If I have a concern, it's always the balance between civil service and contractor. What is the--you know, I call it a critical--what is the critical mass of civil servants necessary to ensure that we have the proper skills to oversee our contractor activities? I am very confident that we have that at this time.

The issue, of course, always is, within our 3,000 civil servants, our skill level, our experience level--we're in great shape right now.

However, I have a concern, because a very large number of our civil servants are at the age where they may retire in the next several years. So I have that challenge in the future ahead of me.

But as we speak right now, I am very confident in the capabilities and skill levels of our people and our ability to support the shuttle program.

HESS: As a follow-up, you mentioned that one of the direct-reports you have is for the safety and mission assurance area. Could you explain to us how that functions and how it works in parallel during the flight readiness process?

HOWELL: Once more, it is complex, but I think it's very effective.

Every activity that supports our human space flight program--each one of my directorates, each one of our contractors--United Space Alliance, Lockheed, Boeing and so on and so on--they all have quality-assurance people, safety people and like, because everybody is totally intent on making this a safe activity at all levels and all the way to the end.

However, because of the critical nature of our activity of having people exposed to this environment, I think it's imperative upon me to have a separate organization--safety, reliability and quality-assurance organization that is an added dimension for oversight to ensure that everybody's really doing their jobs and taking care of business.

And so, they do--there are several facets to this. One is we actually use them to support the program and have actual activities with the review boards and are part of the program team, being with them and participating in design and development just to ensure that, from our point of view, everything's done according to Hoyle.

But another aspect of it is I retain the right, since the astronauts belong to me, I have the right to have my own oversight and activities to ensure that everything, you know, we have done everything we can to reduce the risk to the men and women who go in those machines, as well as the men and women who work with those machines. And so, that is another aspect to that organization. They work for me directly to do that.

So there's a combination. They work in concert with the program to assist them in what they do, but they're also have the right to come to me with any kind of a concerns about anything that might be going on. And I can take that directly to Mr. Readdy or whomever.

HESS: Thank you very much.

Sir, did the shuttle program manager ever report directly to the Johnson Space Center?

HOWELL: At this time, no. He did...

HESS: He did? Yes. And how long ago was that?

HOWELL: It's just less than a year ago, right before I became--I became the center director on 1 April of last year, so I haven't been here quite a year. But right after Mr. O'Keefe became the administrator, the decision was made to take the two major programs in Code M, both the shuttle and station, and move them under the direct leadership of the Johnson Space Center director and up to the deputy associate administrator for space flight.

So, this was--this was, I think, a result of the Young (ph) committee's suggestions and recommendations. And so, that decision was made.

And we went through a transition period when it was already--the transition period had begun when I arrived in April, and by summer, we had moved the total responsibility for those programs under General Kostelnik.

So, it's been fairly recently, if you look over the long term, in the history NASA, this authority has been moved back and forth from the centers to the headquarters a couple of times, I believe. But this was the last iteration of that.

HESS: Thank you.

GEHMAN: Go ahead, Jim.

HALLOCK: Thank you, Hal.

As I understand the shuttle program, there are four centers that really are very much involved with it: your own, Kennedy, Marshall and Stennis. I'm just curious, what kind of interactions you have at your level with these other groups?

HOWELL: With the other centers?

HALLOCK: Yes.

HOWELL: We communicate quite regularly. I think it's--sometimes, given what the issues are, I might be communicating every day with Roy Bridges at Kennedy or Art Stevens at Marshall. Other times, we'll go a week or so without talking to each other. So, it really, at our level, we sort of hit the hot buttons and talk to each other over major issues.

At a lower level, we have a continuous liaison, communications and actual integrative work with the other centers with our engineers. We actually have a virtual engineering capability with Marshall, where our engineers and their engineers sit down together and work out problems together on a regular basis.

Our relationship with Kennedy is very close, because, of course, that's where they process the vehicles and work with them. And our astronauts are over there on a continuous basis for training and for familiarization.

So, below me, below our directorate level, there is a continuous flow of information and activity among the centers, where they work with each other on a continual basis.

HALLOCK: Thank you.

GEHMAN: Dr. Widnall?

WIDNALL: OK. I actually have two questions. One's just a point of information. Who does the mission ops directorate report to?

HOWELL: The mission operations director reports to me.

WIDNALL: OK, so that reports to you.

The second question is, you spoke about the Safety and Mission Assurance Organization that works for you, which, as I understand, your description is, basically it's supposed to provide an independent assessment.

Could you give me some examples of major program or mission changes that have occurred as a result of recommendations brought forward by the Safety and Mission Assurance Organization?

And of course I put in the word "major." I have no idea what "major" means. But if you can't answer it now, I guess I would be interested if you could supply some examples for the record.

HOWELL: You know, right at this moment, I really don't have an example...

WIDNALL: I understand.

HOWELL: But I'll be happy to do that.

Another aspect--just because of my capability of having leverage in these things, a lot of issues that they raise are worked out with the programs at a lower level.

So it's a rare occasion when it would actually come to me, because they--you know, every--I probably can't say it sufficiently how important safety is to every person who works at that center. And it's a way of life. You know, you can say it's number-one, first. But it's really--you know, if we were fish, it's the ocean we swim in there. It's an attitude. And so any time anybody raises that flag at any level, it gets people's attention very quickly, and people are going to take care of it.

So it really hasn't been, since I have been the director, I don't really have an example. I do know that those things have happened in the past, and I'll be happy to get something...

WIDNALL: I'd be very interested.

HOWELL: Yes, ma'am.

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