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Transcript of Press Event with Sean O'Keefe and Bill Readdy (Part 3)

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Friday, March 14, 2003

Part 1 | 2 | 3

QUESTIONER: Earl Lane with Newsday.

In Mr. Readdy's memo --

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: I said "yes, ma'am," and you responded.

QUESTIONER: Mr. Readdy's memo says to prepare to support a launch opportunity as early as the fall initiative. Do you think that is realistic, particularly given the fact that you might have to do things like come up with inspection, repair mechanisms?

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: Let me refer you back to conversations as early as the 12th of February when the Joint Committees on Commerce and Science asked me to come up and speak about that within 11 days of the accident.

Their determination at that point was when you are looking at the range of different issues that are involved here, what is the earliest and the latest that you could support operations, and so what they recommended -- and I heard beforehand and we have been pursuing ever since -- is looking at this in really basically 6-month intervals.

You may recall a specific dialogue in which there were discussions back and forth in which certain Members of Congress asked very specifically on the International Space Station, how will you rotate crews, over what period of time, how long can you sustain the activity. So much of what is guiding here is based on International Space Station, to be sure, because we have got three folks up there right now.

We have announced a rotation plan that we are pursuing with our partners to rotate the crew and put Expedition VII aboard at the end of April, bring Expedition VI back in the beginning of May. And in the course of that time, we have got to be thinking longer term in terms of what it is going to take in order to support them with consumables, propellant, water, spare parts, all that stuff. So everything has got to be done in intervals here, and the earliest interval that we would have to consider would be fall.

And that is why rather than saying, oh, yes, let's speculate on this date all the way through X-number period of time, whatever you would like to go to, the smarter proposition -- and I think Bill hit it exactly right -- was to say the earliest point where we could make it, I think the potential of return to flight, would be sometime as early as this fall. So that is the first 6-month interval, and that is what he is prepared for. And anything from that point forward is going to roll out in accordance with that dialogue and that very first hearing, 11 days after the accident, in which we are being asked and I think responsibly so.

I think it was a very helpful notion to say let's look at this in terms of longer-term intervals and what each of those would apply, and it applies to different things, the longer you go and the earlier you go. So we are getting started in a way that tackles the earliest one right up front, and it continues to move down that path at every interval there.

QUESTIONER: If you were doing the early [inaudible], you wouldn't have -- I mean talking about the -- to review the operational concepts for on-orbit inspection repair, the TPS, is it realistic to think you could have that in place by the fall?

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: I will let you get into further detail, but I think none of these are date- or scenario-dependent. It is simply -- I think an important point of what Bill has launched here is let's start down this process, and each of those limitations or opportunities will present themselves as we begin that dialogue.

The alternative is to sit here on our hands and wait for a report to be released. We are not going to do that.

Again, this is exactly consistent with everything we have talked about the last several weeks, which is we are going to continue to look at what it is we got to do, return to flight safely. This is just the next step in that process. It is all going to be planning-oriented. We are not going to do anything that would fundamentally alter or implement anything along the way until after the report is released and the findings are concluded by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Yes, ma'am, now.

QUESTIONER: In your opening remarks, you talked about an "aha" moment in the course of the Gehman board's investigation. We all know that the course of unfettered investigation can lead to places that you never expected to go.

Is there any possibility in all of these wide-ranging scenarios that the return to flight would not include the Shuttle?

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: I can't imagine a scenario which would do that, but certainly that has to be the furthest range of what could occur. I think it is equally -- that probably is equally probable as th Gehman board coming back and saying it was the Acapulco Flange and all you got to do is fix the Acapulco Flange and everything will be fine, you can start flying tomorrow. I think that probability is as high as the probability that says --

QUESTIONER: So it is light, but possible?

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: It is as possible and probable as them coming back with an answer that says it is something really simple, and all you got to do is hold your mouth a different way and the flights will be just fine. I think that is unlikely, too. They are both equally unlikely.

QUESTIONER: Then again?

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: We will see.

I got to run.

QUESTIONER: [Jeff Smith, Washington Post] Were you aware of Mr. Readdy's conversations with NIMA [ph], and if so, at the time they were happening? And if so, did you have a viewpoint about them? What was your --

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: Nice try, Jeff.

I am not going to confirm that there were conversations between any specific agency or not. These are national assets, and we will not get --

QUESTIONER: Okay. Take that part of my question out.

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: Okay. Try it again.

QUESTIONER: [Jeff Smith, Washington Post] Were you aware of the conversations Mr. Readdy was having with another agency about whether to have an image captures of the Shuttle during the flight?

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: After February 1st, I became aware of circumstances under which there were -- as we all were, during the course of the operation as well as later, in which there were reported anomalies or concerns about various efforts. So every day, there would be a report on the status of the flight, recalled it on this one -- I want to say Day 4 and on Day 12, the issue of the foam impact, for example, was reported, analyzed and determined to be not a safety-of-flight consideration.

QUESTIONER: You are saying this is after the --

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: No, during the operation itself, those reports were available to the crew, to all of us within NASA. It certainly came across the desk each day. This is the same dialogue I think you and I had about. Those are the same reports that told me about the temperature rising.

QUESTIONER: Daily reports, yes.

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: Yes. So all of that was available.

After the accident was more of a discussion of exactly what national assets were available or discussed or whatever else, and again, all of that has been documented and released to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and the Inspector General.

QUESTIONER: So you didn't know about these conversations until after they --

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: All of that information has been released to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the Inspector General, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and I really don't want to go into sources and methods or how it was determined or anything else.

QUESTIONER: No, I am not asking you about any of that. I am just asking you what you knew --

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: Yes, you are.

QUESTIONER: -- during the flight.

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: Yes, you are because, as things roll out, that then starts to establish points of source of where it may have emerged from and whatever else, and I really don't want to get there. I think all of the appropriate folks who are working these kinds of questions that have the classification clearances for them and understand the process of how they are derived, have information, fully documented, it is all out there, again, my firmest view is that we will, in all likelihood, get some understanding or recommendation or finding from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that will render a judgment about judgments made at that time. And that is the way we will treat that particular question.

But I really don't want to get into a timeline sequence or anything else. Again, it all either verifies or not the sources and methods of how those national assets may be attained. I really can't do that.

QUESTIONER: The other question is: Can you make available, or ask your colleagues to make available, the Rosha [ph] e-mail?

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: The Rosha e-mails. As I understand it, one of the things we are trying to do is collect all of the information out there.

Let me see.

MR. READDY: Well, there are several, and we are working to get them together.

ADMINISTRATOR O'KEEFE: Not only this, but lots of other things.

MR. READDY: Lots of other things.

And as soon as we can get that together, we are going to release it, as we have other documents.

QUESTIONER: You mentioned 6-month increments and the possibility of fixing thermal protection and so forth. Could you address your outlook at this point on the [inaudible] of whatever redesign you do decide to do? Do you see any problem that would involve the Orbiter body, probably the test machine, just having one, and would you be forced to rely on computer modeling and other kinds of partial [inaudible], and do you anticipate having an overseeing body such as the NRC panel that oversaw the redesign of the Challenger?

MR. READDY: Well, I think they oversaw the redesign of the solid rocket motor [inaudible].

QUESTIONER: Right, right.

MR. READDY: Very, very narrow, very specific area of redesign, and that was after the findings and recommendations said that that was a causal factor.

QUESTIONER: Right.

MR. READDY: So, to dissect your question now a little bit, I think we will use whatever means that we have available, and whether they include computer modeling or actual tests on hardware, we will certainly do that.

As you know, the Discovery right now is in an Orbiter major maintenance phase there at the Kennedy Space Center, Orbiter Processing Day No. 3, I think, and so that vehicle is available at this point to go look and see. As the board determines, maybe we want to examine this particular area of structure or this particular design feature. So we have that available to go off and go look at. So we actually have flight hardware.

QUESTIONER: Flight what?

MR. READDY: Flight hardware. Flight hardware, the vehicle, another Orbiter at this point. In terms of what happened, obviously we don't know. If it turns out to be -- and I think at this point, we are certainly going to go off and look at foam. We are going to go look at the external tank and the insulation. We are going to look at tile, just like I put in my tasking memo. We are going to look at all of those things.

Some of them may require testing of the materials. Some of them may wind up being just analysis of the existing capabilities and the proposals that may be on the table.

I don't know whether I answered your question or not.

QUESTIONER: Well, do you anticipate -- has there been any mention or discussion in your presence ginning up an independent body to oversee the process, once the Gehman board has reported?

MR. READDY: You know, it is just so soon that that hasn't been raised, but I certainly wouldn't rule it out, particularly if they get to a very specific causal factor.

I mean, you know, nobody wants any worse than we do to find out what happened and fix it and make sure that we fix it right, but by putting a laser beam on whatever that happens to be, we are not going to ignore the rest of the system.

I think he talked earlier about, well, how about the organization. That was something that was commented on post-Challenger, but we acted on that. We changed the organization. We changed the reporting structure. We put crew members in key positions of responsibility. Why? Because we have been there. We know what it is like. We know what it takes to make those kinds of decisions real time. We know how the crew responds, how the training team responds, how the engineers respond, and the firing room and ignition control. So I think we acted on those before.

I wouldn't rule those out either. We will be guide by the results of the board.

MR. MAHONE: We have just got a few more minutes left. So if you want to ask any additional questions --

QUESTIONER: [Inaudible.]

MR. READDY: That is a very legitimate question. Let me start out with that.

I think there is the impression that these capabilities are available any time you want them. These capabilities were not put in place to support the Space program. These capabilities were put in place for other purposes, and for us to change priorities for those national capabilities is extraordinary, and we have to justify that there was an extraordinary reason to do so.

We did not have that rationale. We would have, believe me. If we had thought for a moment that there was a problem where requesting those capabilities would have helped, we would have done it.

QUESTIONER: [Inaudible.]

MR. READDY: Well, you all could talk about them all day long, but people who have clearances can.

QUESTIONER: To determine as much as we can talk about it, were these things in the position to take images that would have been useful to you? What can you tell us about that?

MR. READDY: I can't comment on sources, methods. Sorry.

QUESTIONER: Another thing I want to ask you about, primarily I am interested in the International Space Station. I am wondering if you are looking out. I know you are looking out 6 months and you are looking at 12 [inaudible] 18. How far out are you looking in terms of trying to prepare for operating without a Space Shuttle? Are you looking out 24 months? Are you looking out 30 months?

MR. READDY: You know, I think our view right now is much nearer term. We are certainly looking out 18 months to 2 years. Why? You know, if you look at the aftermath of Challenger, you might say that would be a length of time that would be appropriate.

We don't know what happened, and when we find out what happened, then we are going to be an awful lot more informed in terms of how long it is going to take to return to flight.

Like I said before, the plan is nothing, but the planning that goes into the plan is everything, and we need to be prepared.

QUESTIONER: When is the latest, though, in getting additional assistance from Russia, should you need it, the way that might happen? There is some indication that the relationship between NASA and Russia is getting sucked up in the relationship between Washington and the Kremlin over the Iraq. So how has that affected your day-to-day dealings with your Russian partners, and what are the options right now?

MR. READDY: First of all, that is way, way, way above my pay grade. When it comes to our relationships with Russians specifically on International Space Station, though, Mr. Koptov [ph] has been very forthcoming.

He has said that they are there, they are moving forward, they are going to do the best they can to support the international partnership, and we take Mr. Koptov at his word.

Right now, the most immediate thing that we need to do is crew rotation and continue the operation of the Space Station, and that is what we are focussing on right now.

QUESTIONER: Could you comment on the request that we have all seen? Russia is basically setting up a request that they need cash assistance from the partners, probably the United States, soon.

MR. READDY: Well, I think, first of all, the United States, because of INA, is not in a position to fund the Russian Space program. That is pretty clear.

This is a partnership, an international partnership, and I think that what has happened with Columbia highlights the fact that it is good to have dissimilar redundancies in terms of access to and from the Space Station, for supplies to people. We are expecting the partners to work through this with us.

We are not in a position to help ourselves in this particular case. That, I think ultimately -- that will be a litmus test for how a legitimate partnership is, how we deal with this issue.

MR. MAHONE: Last couple of questions.

MR. READDY: I am here eventually again. Talk about the elephant in the room here, obviously that is an issue that I would just as soon [inaudible].

Who is next?

QUESTIONER: You guys are quick to let us know when we are rushing to judgment on things, but aren't you guys rushing to judgment also when you say that a safe return to flight is, in fact, possible, especially in light of what Mr. Gehman said on Tuesday about age of the system now being in question?

MR. READDY: Well, you know, go back to -- as a test pilot, I flew the F-18. The F-18 is the front-line fighter that we have right now in the Navy. I flew that before the Shuttle ever flew the first time.

We are not talking about retiring the F-18's. The F-18's don't get the same kind of care that Orbiters get every trip through the Orbiter processing facility. They don't get the same kind of overall that the shuttles get in the Orbiter major maintenance period.

So, if it turns out to be age-related, I guess so be it, and we will deal with that. It is hard for me to imagine, having spent so much time at the Cape, having flown [inaudible], and every time you strap in, it is like a brand-new car. I mean, it is just hard to convey to you the level of attention and detail and TLC that those technicians lavish on those vehicles, each and every time we prepare to go fly.

Are we rushing to judgment thinking that we might return to flight? Gosh, that is a real stretch for me. I don't see how you arrive at that conclusion. I think the expectation is we will return to flight. I think that is what we owe the STS-107 crew, and in terms of the processes that we put in place to assure that we return to flight safely, that is what we owe all of the other crews.

QUESTIONER: [Jeff Smith, Washington Post] I would like to just go back to what Bill said a little earlier, though, also. Bill, everything is on the table in this memo, too, and so if you will read where he did make some points, he also made the point that there were the other things that would be looked at as the process goes. It is a large process, and everything is out there and is on the table.

MR. READDY: Yes. Look, this was not a term paper or anything. I mean, you know, we did the best we could to try and corral as many things that we knew at the time to put in there and guide the effort, to task them to come up with a plan, and there are probably going to be more things. Maybe they will rule some things out. I don't know. I don't want to prejudge that outcome.

I am expecting a team to come back with a plan.

QUESTIONER: Bill, as I reported this morning, one of your colleagues at NASA told me that there were three offers.

MR. READDY: Yes. That is confusing to me.

QUESTIONER: It comes from somebody who said they spoke to you, so --

MR. READDY: Yes. Well, I made my statement to the board for the record, and I can read portions to you.

QUESTIONER: Yes.

MR. READDY: Okay. Let's see. A NASA official visited me in my office and said an individual from another agency had been discussing the external tank debris issue during STS-107 ascent. He wanted -- he, the NASA person wanted to discuss an offer of support from the other agency with respect to observing the Space Shuttle Columbia on orbit. He explained that NASA would have to repeat -- excuse me -- would have to request that support on an emergency or high-priority basis.

I explained that the ET debris and possible implications to the left wing thermal protection system had been analyzed and reported to the mission management team and documented in Flight Day 12 per daily report.

My understanding was the Space Shuttle program was well aware of those capabilities that could be provided by the other agency, and had concluded that the offer would not contribute to the analysis.

I related to that individual as well as the conclusions reached by the mission management team that there was no safety-of-flight issue, and for those reasons, there was no rationale for requesting emergency or high-priority support.

This individual reiterated that the other agency desired to do support on a not-to-interfere basis. I acknowledged this information and told him again that this was not viewed as a safety-of-flight issue, but told him to accept the offer of support on a not-to-interfere basis.

That is it.

QUESTIONER: Under what basis?

MR. READDY: Not to interfere.

QUESTIONER: Can you explain that?

MR. READDY: What?

QUESTIONER: [Seth Borenstein, Knight RIdder] In the days that followed, when people are questioning themselves in everything they have done, in your own mind, have you thought through this whole scenario, and do you have personal regrets there yet?

MR. READDY: I can tell you that I am familiar with the capabilities. So are other program officials.

In my judgment, I don't think that that would have added to the discussion, nor in the judgement of Ron Diddimore, Len Hamm [ph], and others in the Shuttle program.

At the end of the day, the Gehman board, who has individuals that are clear with proper security clearances, will review what was potentially available, and they will also rule on that and will be guided by the results.

QUESTIONER: So you really haven't questioned yourself on this in the post --

MR. READDY: I think everybody looks back at the events that transpired during that mission and critiques every last little detail, every last little nuance. Those were my friends. Those were my colleagues.

If I had thought for a second that there was anything that we could have added to the discussion at that time, if I had thought for a second that there was a safety-of-flight issue, we would have availed ourselves of every possible resource, including national capabilities, including an emergency request for national capabilities.

MR. MAHONE: Next question.

QUESTIONER: You are ruling out -- or not ruling out, though he said the chance of anything coming up out of the investigation that would prevent [inaudible] at all is very remote.

You addressed how [inaudible] the Shuttle is periodically. I understand that, but it doesn't get down to the actual air frame itself.

MR. READDY: Yes, it does. Actually, it does.

QUESTIONER: Okay. So I am wondering if there is any issue here where there is a determination that the age of the air frame is the culprit and whether that would make it more complicated to clear it for return to flight.

MR. READDY: Go back to the aerospace flying process is those vehicles were certified for 100 missions, each and every one of those -- Discovery, I think has 30 missions on it. Columbia, I think had -- correct me -- 28.

Part of that certification process means that there is tremendous margin built into that. Okay. We don't just accept the design as sufficient. That is the reason why we have all of those detailed structural inspections that are performed during the Orbiter major maintenance period.

So we do x-rays. We do modal analysis. We examine the structure inch by inch to make sure that per the design, the hardware is responding as we thought it would.

QUESTIONER: Would you explain just going back to this, the other agency desired to do this on a not-to-interfere basis? I am not sure I understand that.

MR. READDY: I had no conversations with any other agency. I had a conversation with a NASA person --

QUESTIONER: Right.

MR. READDY: -- who conveyed this. So this is all secondhand.

QUESTIONER: But that offer -- they wanted to do it on a not-to-interfere basis?

MR. READDY: What does that mean?

QUESTIONER: I don't know what that is.

MR. READDY: I think it means just what it says. It is not to interfere. Those capabilities are in place to do a lot of other different things. You can suppose that they were doing other things with those assets. I think it is that simple.

QUESTIONER: A second offer was if it is possible without interfering with our war plans or whatever else they were doing, that they wanted to do it. Was that offered?

QUESTIONER: Is that your phrase or their phrase?

MR. READDY: That was their phrase.

QUESTIONER: That was their phrase.

MR. READDY: Well, it was relayed to me. That was their phraseology.

QUESTIONER: Not to interfere with their operations as opposed to --

QUESTIONER: NASA operations.

QUESTIONER: -- your operations?

MR. READDY: Their operations.

MR. MAHONE: In the sense that it was communicated to Bill in that way because, again, this is coming secondhand to him, not direct. So there is a distinction there that I think you need to be sure and make.

QUESTIONER: When did you make that statement to the board?

MR. READDY: The statement, I made on February 3rd. And actually, the statement was: For the record, it was released to the board and to the IG.

MR. MAHONE: Last question.

QUESTIONER: [Jeff Smith, Washington Post] Did it seem odd to you that there was another agency in the Government that was more eager to take a photograph than NASA was of the Shuttle in flight? Doesn't that seem odd to you?

MR. READDY: Yes. Quite frankly, it did seem odd to me in that these other people did not have insight into the engineering analyses that had been done and likely as not they were informed simply by what they read in the newspaper or what they saw on TV.

So I think they were leaning forward saying, "Hey" --

QUESTIONER: Well, wait a minute. There was nothing on TV or in the newspaper about debris, nothing, none. None.

MR. READDY: Really?

QUESTIONER: Nothing.

MR. READDY: I know that somewhere I saw on a website or someplace actual footage of the asset as played over and over again, and maybe it was your website. I don't know, but I remember seeing that.

It was certainly in this kind of neural network that it is to NASA. I mean, it was all over the place. It was discussed.

MR. MAHONE: It was in the daily reports.

MR. READDY: It was in the daily reports, and in fact, I think that the transaction that I heard was this individual from another agency was attending a conference and heard about this and then volunteered to a NASA person, "Hey, have you considered" -- but none of those people were privy to the engineering analysis, and it is unlikely that they were privy to the MIR reports. And in fact, this individual from NASA that approached me was not aware of the Flight Day 12 report that said there was no safety-of-flight issue.

QUESTIONER: Did you discuss this issue with others, your superiors?

MR. READDY: No.

MR. MAHONE: Thank you very much.

[End of Media Roundtable.]

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