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CAIB Briefing Transcript 11 March 2003 (Part 1)

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

Adm. Harold Gehman, USN, Chairman of CAIB
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hess, Chief, Safety Center, Kirtland Air Force Base
Dr. Sheila Widnall, Vice President, National Academy of Engineering
Maj. Gen. John Barry, Director, Plans and Programs,
Headquarters Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

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GEHMAN: Good afternoon. I'm joined today by three of my colleagues on the board, one representing each of the sub boards or working groups that we have established. To my left is Ken Hess, who is working in the operations section. Beside him is John Barry, who's working in the section that's looking at materiel and maintenance issues. And to his left is Dr. Sheila Widnall, who's working on the engineering and technical evaluations section.

I'll make a few introductory comments and then each of them will make some short comments as to what their groups are working one and where their fellow board members are. And then we'll open it up to questions.

As is our practice every week, we try not to save up news for Tuesday. We do release things as they become apparent. The purpose of this press conference is really more of a dialogue so you can ask questions and get a two-way dialogue going with the board members on anything that you're interested in.

Once again, I think that we've had a good week here. We are moving along methodically in our understanding of what happened to the orbiter. That is--let me rephrase that. We're moving along nicely in our understanding of the forces that were at work on the orbiter as it failed to properly enter the Earth's atmosphere.

I would not want to say that we're moving along rapidly at finding the cause, because it remains to be elusive.

But we are doing a considerable amount of good hard engineering and science work at understanding the environment and the forces that the orbiter was subjected to and also narrowing down the part of the geography on the orbiter where the assault seems to have taken place.

Every time we do a little analysis, every time we see another study, it tends to focus us a little bit more. And I think that my colleagues here will talk about that some more.

We continue to rely primarily on the six major detective stories that I told you about before. And they are: the aerodynamic analysis; the thermal analysis; the videographic and picture analysis of debris shedding; the refinement of the time line; debris collection, lay out, analysis; and the material documentation of everything that was done to the orbiter or anyone who touched the orbiter in between its flights. And those are the six primary areas that we hope will lead us to an answer to this riddle. And a lot of work has been done in each of those areas.

The board this week, as a group, spent a lot of time, many hours this week, testing, proposing and discarding scenarios. Now, by that I mean, individual little pieces of scenarios; relatively detailed discussions.

The purpose of these hours that we spent together was not necessarily to find the scenario that caused the orbiter to fail--we're not smart enough to do that yet. But we did want to determine what tests would be necessary in order to either prove or disprove a scenario. In other words, if somebody has a theory or a scenario which seems to be relevant, then we want to develop what it takes to either prove or disprove that.

And so we went through that--we spent a considerable number of hours going through that process. And I don't have--we don't have an answer for you, so I'm not going to--I won't go into any more detail than that.

The public hearing I found to be very useful. We're going to continue with the public hearing process. The next public hearing's on Monday afternoon, next, and Tuesday morning. We're going to go for three or four hours on Monday afternoon and go for three or four hours on Tuesday morning here at JSC. It's actually going to be at the Clear Lake Hilton Hotel in one of the ballrooms there.

We're going to discuss investigatory matters. We're going to have some of the experts on thermal and aero-analysis come and brief us with charts and view graphs and movies and videographs as to exactly where they are. So you will get a post-graduate level education on aerodynamics and thermodynamics. So you will see--you will be able to tell at the end of that exactly how far we've gone, how deep we've gone, but also how much further we have to go.

We worked--another issue that the board worked very hard this week was the issue of debris testing. We and NASA have had several meetings. The board has some testing initiatives that we want to get started. Just laying the debris out on the floor is not enough to find the answer to this mystery.

We need to do metallurgic testing, we need to do heat testing. There's a whole lot of kinds of--whole series of tests that need to be conducted.

But at the same time we have to be very careful that we don't in any way disturb or remove anything that might be evidence.

So this has been a very careful, methodical process between us, NASA and the people who are helping us, like the NTSB and other people that are helping us like that.

The last thing I'm going to mention is three new members that I announced last week. Dr. Sally Ride has already been to work. She was here last week and has already made a significant contribution. Dr. Douglas Osheroff I've been in contact with. He will be visiting us this week. He already has a bunch of ideas that he wants to pursue. And Dr. John Logsdon and I have exchanged a couple of telephone calls, a couple of e-mails, and I will be meeting with him next week.

So, all three of the new board members are either on or already participating, either in person or by remote. And essentially from now on they will be coming and going essentially weekly, if they can, to participate and help our investigation along.

That's a quick summary. Let me throw some facts out--just some facts and figures.

From--as of close of business last night we had collected 28,286 pieces total that are at Kennedy. We collected thousands more than that. Kennedy has 28,286 pieces, of which 25,404 have been identified.

Now, only--when you see pictures of the floor and see pictures of the grid, that represents only 1,038 pieces of the 25,000. Because you got to remember that we are laying the orbiter out in two dimensions, not three dimensions, upside down. So we're looking, what we're interested is the bottom surface. So that's what--those are the 1,000 pieces that we have out there, the landing gear, the landing gear door, the tiles, elevons and things like that.

All the rest of the pieces are catalogued and stored, and they're available for us to use for analysis.

The 28,286 pieces represents 39,300 pounds, I haven't divided that into the dry weight, but it works out to something like 18 or 19 percent.

On a daily basis, every day of the week, there have been over 4,000 people out collecting debris. On one day last week--I think I'm looking at the 7th here--they had actually 5,300 people out on one particular day.

They continue to average a dozen aircraft a day, helicopters and fixed wing. The Navy team in the two lakes, the Toledo Bend Lake and the Lake Nacogdoches, have identified over 200 submerged targets which are of great interest by electronic means, by sonar means, and then they're going to go back and dive on them.

We're hopeful included in there are the main engines, and I think that that's kind of all the h's.

Oh, yes, the--laid out in the grid among the 1,038 pieces laid out in the grid, are 233 that are from the left wing, which, of course, is what we're most interested in.

And I think that covers, kind of, all the introductory things, and I'll pass it now to General Ken Hess.

HESS: Good afternoon. Group Two is continuing on its march through the basic processes that got the shuttle into the launch that had to do with training and payload and operations.

Now, if you recall from our previous sessions with you, we, kind of, described our approach as, kind of, in phases. We're, I would say, maybe two-thirds of the way through Phase One, and that's just understanding and appreciating all the processes that lead to a launch.

This last week we finished looking at the training and certification, as well as complete research of the impounded records that NASA had on hold for us. And in the payload area we've completed our documentation review and we've looked at the telemetry that had to do with the payload and everything that was down-linked to NASA, and we didn't find anything that was unusual in those areas.

In the areas of operations, we are continuing our look into the DOD request for imagery; we are sharing that with Group One, and also with Group One we're looking at the e-mails that were exchanged between engineers, as well as looking at the impounded records and logs of the mission control team that was at the Mission Control Center at the time.

And this last week saw us begin our initial sets of interviews with the Astronaut Office.

In the area of mission management we've started to take a look at NASA's organizational structure, and those actions and decisions that led to launch preparation and launch decisions, as well as the things that took place while the shuttle was on orbit.

And we'll begin taking a look at the MMT specifically, it's organization and performance, here in the coming weeks with the addition of Dr. Ride to our team.

Last week, I had the opportunity to go to Kirtland Air Force Base as part of the Air Force Research Lab and got to the Star Fire Optical Range, and if you'll recall they took the picture of the orbiter overhead, that--where people have been suggesting, perhaps, that there was leading edge damage that was in that picture. And we're trying to verify that.

And I went there because I wanted to understand the techniques that were used to take that picture, and also to find out what kinds of things have been done to enhance that image by the Department of Defense.

I mean, I must tell you that those photo experts are just now beginning their work in liaison with aerodynamics experts and plasma experts to try to see what the picture will really yield. But the important part right now is to enhance the photo as much as can be done without adjusting the facts behind the photo. And we have an excellent team that's working that process right now.

The team added two new members. Admiral Gehman mentioned Dr. Sally Ride. She's going to be joining our team. And she's going to concentrate mostly in the flight readiness review and certification processes, as well, I think, as pinch hitting in other groups and areas where she has tremendous expertise.

We are also adding tonight, Dr. Tracie Dillinger (ph), who's a human factors and organizational psychologist. If you look in the McDonald's (ph) independent assessment, you will find that she was part of the human factor's group in that particular report, as well.

Now, in the very near future, we are going to be attending an integrated simulation training between astronauts who are preparing for a mission and their ground team so that we can look at all aspects of that training. And I think that'll be probably the last piece that we'll look at as far as active training processes.

We are beginning to outline our approach to taking a look at the safety organization and processes in the next week or so. And then, several members of the team will travel to D.C. this next week to begin interviewing at NASA headquarters those people who are in our area of responsibility.

Dr. Dillinger (ph) and many others who are already on the team, to include a Ph.D. from the NTSB, will join us in coming together with a strategy to begin looking at human factors.

I think everybody realizes that our whole investigation will fall short if all we do is concentrate on the technical aspects and ignore the organizational dynamic. And as you recall, Dr. McDonald, last week, says he had great confidence that the management would make the right decisions if they had the right information, OK? So we're going to take a look at the organization dynamic with an attempt to try to understand the implications of what Dr. McDonald was telling us.

And our goal still remains mishap prevention by identifying the hazards and coming up with risk mitigation strategies that would be helpful. So we'll look at the processes, and then talk to the personnel both in maintenance with General Barry's group and on the operational side with Group Two, and then work the seam of that issue together.

And in the coming weeks, we expect to finish Phase One, and then basically use safety and the human factor processes, being our Phase Two approach to the overall investigation.

Thank you.

GEHMAN: General Barry?

BARRY: Good afternoon.

As a member of Group One, right now we have General Duane Deal, who's down at KSC right now. Admiral Turcotte will leave tonight to go to KSC. We'll follow up that with visits to Michoud. And we plan to also, next Tuesday, visit the vendor for the RCC. And also follow up with General Hess' group when we head up to headquarters at NASA to do some interviews.

As you remember, our group is responsible for maintenance, materials and management, human factors kinds of considerations also. We've got a number of subteams out right now that are going on, continue their investigation, at least two to three investigators for each subgroup.

I'm going to give you a couple of updates on maintenance, and then I'm going to follow up with material. So let me just cover the maintenance to begin with.

Close out on fault trees is progressing at a pretty good rate. We continue to work the issues that will eventually be categorized as nonfactors. To date, we are closing out on the fault trees, probably in about a week. That still has to be a formal presentation to the board. But we expect to see the SSME, the space shuttle main engine, the SRB, solid rocket booster, and the replacement on the solid rocket motor. So we expect that to be probably be done in the next couple of weeks. And we'll give you updates as we go along that. Nothings been finalized yet on the close out, but right now, to date that looks like a pretty good schedule.

The external tank will take a little bit longer, because right now there are 14 working groups and about 3,200 blocks on their tree and, of course, the orbiter. So we still have a little bit of work to do on that one. So that's the update on maintenance.

Let me just turn to material. If I could have the first slide, please. I'm going to show you a couple of slides here, some of which you have seen before. This is the bipod that I think you've seen before. Right now, we're trying to follow the foam. And here is the connector, as you can make the comparison between what the slide has and what we have that Woody's (ph) holding in his hand.

I will also tell you that as we follow the foam, we're also looking at the fact that 1893, which was the external tank involved with Columbia, was mated, demated and then remated. And there was a problem report generated on that on damaged foam, which is not unusual when that happens, visibly inspected and concluded that there was no problem.

Also, I want to bring to the attention is, this is what is underneath the foam. There are three kinds of gladed (ph) material. And we have examples of it up here that you can take a look at. This is like cork, if you want to think of it that way. But part of this is clearly going to be an issue in so far as cryo-pumping (ph) is concerned. We're still looking at that as an issue.

Now, cryo-pumping, as you remember, is when we have liquid nitrogen or trapped air that liquefies when it's cold.

And that's what happens when it's sitting on the ramp. And then when it launches, of course, we have the fuel being transferred inside the external tank and we have trapped gases that eventually need to be what they call flash evaporated. And that can expand rapidly and break foam, break ablative and break TPS, thermal protection system, bonds.

So these three kinds of ablative material that you see there, from our investigation to date clearly shows that questionable whether it's even needed. And, in fact, the alternatives that are being designed by NASA right now do not include the ablative material underneath the foam.

There will be some changes to this bipod. You can see that a lot of it's at a pretty strong right angle. They're looking at making it more aerodynamic, and they're considering what exactly is--how they're going to pack the connections underneath so they can maintain the integrity of the system.

I want to give you an update on RCC. And this is, as some of you have seen, the quarter-inch complete RCC that shows you not only the fact that we have a sealant on top, but also that we have a silicone carbide coating on top of the carbon-carbon. You go to the carbon-carbon with another silicone coating, and that is a quarter of an inch. That is really what is protecting the RCC.

One of the things that we're looking at is the issue--here's an Atlantis panel where we've had some problems with pinholes and what I'll introduce as some of you have heard before oxidation. Oxidation is when you have a void underneath the surface and a void in the surface that translates down to the lower levels--a void or a pocket, if you want to think about that, as you can.

Here we have an indication that Atlantis--where they found a defect. When they went ahead and did further analysis, this is what we call a CAT scan, an X-ray. You can see where the--not only the surface but also the sub-surface shows some problems.

Now, this is one way of looking at it besides a visual inspection. Let me introduce another one. This happens to be what they call thermography. If you'll hear the term "tomography," that has to do with CAT scans. If you hear the term "thermography," it has to be a flash of heat on a surface and as it cools down, you get an idea of what's underneath it.

This is that same panel. It happens to be a repair that went bad. And you can see clearly with area three and four that those show some voided areas as well as area five.

Now, I introduce this as not the answer on how to do this, but I know NASA is looking at trying to validate this as a probable way of doing nondestructive examination of this really vital piece of the orbiter.

I want to also show this one. It's a little bit of a side cut on another panel that was discovered on the Discovery. And you can see where the carbon-silicon carbides on top and then also that we have the, kind of, a grayish crack and underneath that is a void. If you do a visual or you do a tap test on this, maybe it will penetrate, maybe it won't. But clearly we want to explore the options of improved capabilities for MDE (ph). So that is thermography and also the issue of oxidation.

Day-2 (ph) debris, I also want to mention is being analyzed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. We are doing radar signatures on a number of items from tiles, RCC blanket ice, horse collars and carrier plates to get some comparative signatures that we can maybe get some idea of what it is that floated off on the second day. Now, that's proceeding rapidly.

We also have what I would characterize as an interesting aspect on ascent. On ascent, what you try to do is measure the winds on liftoff. They send a balloon up and they figure out where the wind sheers are. The wind sheers allow you to make a prediction in the software on how the orbiter ought to roll or the power ought to be adjusted to transient through any wind sheer. We have an issue with that that we're looking into, and I just wanted to share with you all.

The bottom line is, as we move to understand that, at 62 seconds on launch we saw one of the larger transients we've seen on the solid rocket motor. It was well within parameters, but, interestingly enough, the two largest ones we've seen on ascent both happen to be Columbia, both happen to be going on 39 degree inclinations, both have lightweight tanks. So we're trying to identify if there's any commonality there as an additional stress load on the left-hand side of the orbiter, because it was on the left solid rocket motor that had this input. Again, well within parameters, but just one more as we follow the foam, as we follow the transient stresses on the orbiter that might have been able to contribute to one more issue as we trace down this detective story.

So that concludes my remarks.

GEHMAN: Thank you very much.

Part 1 | 2 | 3

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