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Testimony of Admiral Harold Gehman Chairman, Columbia Accident Investigation Board

Status Report From: CAIB
Posted: Wednesday, May 14, 2003

U.S. Senate Commiteee on Commerce, Science & Transortation

Good morning Mr. Chairman, Senator Hollings, distinguished Members of the Committee. It is a pleasure to appear today before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. I thank you for inviting me and for the opportunity to provide an update on the progress of the investigation into the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her courageous crew of seven. My intent today is to provide the Committee with the latest information on the progress and direction of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and its three and a half months of investigation. I am prepared to explore any area in which you or the Committee are interested; however, in order to be concise I've limited my prepared remarks to these three areas:

  • The Board itself
  • The accident investigation
  • Matters beyond the initiating event

I. THE BOARD ITSELF Within an hour after the accident, Administrator O'Keefe activated the accident contingency plan and the standing mishap board that was called for by NASA procedure - a procedure adopted based upon lessons learned from the Challenger accident. The standing board, excluding the Chairman, had seven members appointed by position, not name. These are positions such as the Commander of the Air Force Safety Center, the Commander of the Navy Safety Center, the Director of the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Accident Investigation and the Division Manager of the Department of Transportation's Aviation Safety Division, among others. These experts are all Federal government employees. They are arguably some of, if not the, most experienced and knowledgeable aircraft accident investigators in the world. To augment this standing board, we immediately started adding non-government, non-NASA people, starting with me. As the need for additional expertise and the amount of actual work grew, I added, in my capacity as Chairman of the Accident Investigation Board, a total of five more non-government, non-NASA Board members. This brings us to where we are now: 13 Board members, which just happens to be the same as the number of members of the Rogers Commission. Only one of these professionals has any significant connection with NASA. I want to emphasize that our Board members are active investigators, not passive listeners. We are in session seven days a week and have been since the first week. We have developed a staff that is almost exclusively non-NASA. We are following many precedents set by the Rogers Commission, including using the Department of Justice to archive records and using frequent public hearings to allow our progress to be monitored by all of our constituents. We are taking all possible advantage of other organizations with applicable expertise. These include, among others, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Safety Council and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, just to name a few. Mr. Chairman, as a Naval aviator, I am sure you will appreciate the significance of the Board's extensive use of the special tools available to us under the rubric of a safety investigation. We are gaining insights into areas we would not be privy to under other investigatory models. The benefit of this process will flow directly to you and your Committee in the form of a deeper and much more complete view into Shuttle Program processes, management, safety programs and quality assurance.

II. THE ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION

The Board has made excellent progress in gaining a precise picture of the environment and forces acting on the Columbia in her last ten minutes of flight. Through detailed and exhaustive scientific and engineering analysis and through just plain hard work, we have determined the facts related to the loss of the Shuttle and her crew. While I cannot lay out for you with absolute certainty the entire chain of events that led to this catastrophe, I can tell you that the pieces of this puzzle, particularly regarding the mechanics of the accidents, are fitting together with increasing precision and consistency. As a means for crosschecking the consistency of our evidence and findings, we are simultaneously building six separate 'pictures' or scenarios of the accidence sequence. These 'pictures' may be labeled:

  • The aerodynamic scenario
  • The thermodynamic scenario
  • The detailed system timeline from telemetry and recovered on-board recorder
  • The photographic and videographic scenario
  • The story the debris reconstruction and analysis tell us, and
  • The story the records of maintenance and modification work tell us.
We have developed each picture quite accurately; we then overlay the scenarios one on the other to find the best fit. All six scenarios point toward the same conclusion: that the Columbia entered the Earth's atmosphere with a pre-existing deformation in the leading edge of the left wing. That deformation allowed super-heated air, well above 3,000 F, to get into the wing's internal structure over a period of 10 minutes. After a few minutes, the heat-damaged wing began encountering significant aerodynamic forces with which it could not cope. When traveling at over 12,500 miles per hour, it doesn't take a lot of damage to create significant heat and significant aerodynamic forces. Because the Shuttle maintained a nominal flight path and altitude until the very end, we believe the accident itself was sudden and catastrophic. Mr. Chairman, while the Board ultimately expects to speak with a high degree of confidence regarding the entire accident scenario, at present we are not entirely confident that we know for certain what physical event initiated the failure chain of events. We are all aware that the left wing was struck by External Tank insulating foam 81 seconds after launch, but to date, we are still looking for hard evidence that this foam strike caused any damage to the left wing. We are conducting tests now to help fill in this critical link in the chain of events.

III. MATTERS BEYOND THE INITIATING EVENT

Defining the point of the origin and timing of the failure sequence is extraordinarily important, but this by itself does not satisfy our requirement to find both the contributing and underlying causes of this accident. We also must determine why and how this failure process got started in the first place. We are looking in parallel at all related processes that pertain to the Shuttle system as a whole. These processes include, but are not limited to: safety, risk management policies and practices, quality assurance, maintenance practices, consistency in control of waivers and anomalies, turnaround processes, preparations to launch, work force issues, budgets, and the group dynamics of all boards and committees that NASA has set up to ensure inter-disciplinary coordination. Mr. Chairman, the Board intends to draft a final report that places this accident in context. By 'in context' I mean we will attempt to build a complete picture of how this accident fits into the complicated mosaic of budget trends, the myriad previous external reviews of NASA and the Shuttle Program, the implementation of Rogers Commission recommendations, changing Administrations and changing priorities, previous declarations of estimates of risk, work force trends, management issues and several other factors--each of which may contribute to a safer program to a greater or lesser degree. We on the Board are fully aware that when our work is finished, your work will be just beginning. We have set a high intellectual bar for the Board to clear. That bar is this: our report will be of sufficient depth and breadth that it will serve as the basis for a complete public policy debate on the future of the Space Shuttle Program. We believe we can both find the cause of this accident and relate it to these other issues. As we find items relevant to the return to flight decision, we have and will continue to release those results in the form of interim findings and recommendations, similar to the way the National Transportation Safety Board does in its aircraft accident investigations. These will both keep the Congress, the Administration, and the public informed of our progress and allow for interim work at NASA to proceed as quickly as possible. Mr. Chairman, speaking for the 13 dedicated experts on the Board and the thousands of people working to solve this mystery, I can assure you, the astronauts' families, and the American people that we will spare no effort to get to the bottom of this. I estimate that we are better than half done. We have all the assets and expertise we need, or we know where and how to get it. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. This concludes my prepared remarks and I look forward to your questions.

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