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Transcript (Part 5): Hearing on the Space Shuttle Columbia Investigation Before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation 14 May 2003

Status Report From: Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Posted: Monday, May 26, 2003

MR. O'KEEFE: Senator, if I could. I think at the conclusion of this investigation. When this report is finalized and after the Agency takes said actions to implement those findings, I am confident you will find no ambiguity on this question of accountability at all.

SENATOR SUNUNU: Excellent. Thank you. Senator Breaux, in his line of questioning, talked about the foam insulation breaking loose. And I want to be clear on what you said. I think you indicated that there had been 30 impacts, approximately 30 impacts, that had resulted in a specific amount of damage.

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: One inch.

SENATOR SUNUNU: One inch or I take it that's one inch or greater?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: One inch or greater. Sir, excuse me. Per flight.

SENATOR SUNUNU: There have been an average of 30 impacts per flight that have resulted in damage of one inch or greater. And can you describe -- when you say damage of one inch or greater, can you give us a little bit more background and detail as to what type of damage that is, and what part of the Shuttle?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: Yes, sir. It's on the -- what we call the acreage tile, the 25,000 individual tiles like this. And we're talking about a divot, a chip, that's greater than one inch in any dimension, and underneath this black, is white. So, if you chip this, it's pretty obvious. So, a chip in the tile anyplace on the orbiter in the thermal protection system that has a dimension in any direction of greater than one inch.

SENATOR SUNUNU: Is 30 an average number or --?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: -- Thirty is an average number.

SENATOR SUNUNU: And, talk to be about distinct or deviation. I mean, did it vary greatly from flight to flight, or was it consistent that you'd have 30 impacts of that nature?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: It's, with the exception of four or five flights in which there were tremendous variations, up in the hundreds, and these were accounted for. For example, when NASA changed the, what we call the blowing agent -- the air power behind the foam application, in accordance with EPA regulations to stop using Freon, on the very next tank that flew with the new blowing agent, the number of divots was up in the hundreds. They immediately knew what the problem was and they changed blowing agents. It had gasified in a different way that they hadn't anticipated, so they fixed it. And the next time it went back down to 30, just like that. I will also tell you, Senator, that the trend over all 113 flights is flat -- not getting any better.

SENATOR SUNUNU: Was there -- there seems to be, or has been, a process to measure and quantify the damage from these impacts. Was there any process, albeit unsuccessful from your description, to address or reduce the number of impacts?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: There have been steps taken. There have been discussions, meeting, studies, analysis, to reduce it -- unsuccessful. And while our audit -- we call it an audit. We call it following the foam. There's a foam audit going on right now, all the way from the first flight, trying to go through the records, to see what the records say that these various Boards and Committees did to adjudicate, what should we do about the foam. And generally speaking, the records kind of just die off. I mean, the issue just kind of goes away. It's never actually really addressed in an engineering point of view.

SENATOR SUNUNU: When did it go away?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: What happens is, is that the foam hits the orbiter. There are a couple of significant issues. It appears on the FRR, the Flight Readiness Review, in various material boards. They study it real hard to see what they can do about it. They have four of five more flights in which there are only minor problems, and they say well, it looks like it's not a big problem. And then what happens is success clouds their engineering judgment. They say well, look it's still happening, but nothing bad's happening. Looks like it's okay. Then another couple of years will go by and something big will happen, it will appear in the records again. Some studies will be ordered, some engineering analysis, maybe a fix, and then the numbers go back down to reasonable numbers, and success again breeds this attitude that it looks like it's okay.

SENATOR SUNUNU: But it's fair to say the average number of impacts over the last just say 20 flights is relatively constant?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: All the way from the first one, it's relatively constant.

SENATOR SUNUNU: This issue of space debris was raised during just some of the early press accounts, guess work, hypothesis, you know, what might have happened. I assume that's been reviewed pretty thoroughly by the Board. Is that concern or question still a possibility as a cause of damage, or perhaps something that made existing damage worse while in orbit? And on a related note, have you learned anything or come to any conclusions, about our ability to track and to deal with the threat of space debris to future flights?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: The issue of the possibility of the orbiter being hit by space debris is unresolved by the Board at this, time after a lot of work. The Board understands the ability of the United States to track space debris down to a certain size. And the Board understands how the orbiter is maneuvered around the intersection, you can call it conjunction, with space debris down to a certain size. But then micrometeorite debris, the little tiny stuff that we can't track, we don't even know is out there, remains an open issue. And we have attempted to get at this issue by a number of very clever ways.

The orbiter has some very, very sensitive accelerometers on board, that the output of which is recorded on board and not telemetried down to earth. It turns out that the recovery of this data recorder, which is a miracle, has allowed us to read out those accelerometers. There are a couple of little jiggles in some of those accelerometers, which suggests that we need to look harder at that. But we cannot rule out a tiny little micrometeorite kind of a strike.

SENATOR SUNUNU: Final question for the --.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: -- Time is expired.

SENATOR SUNUNU: But can I -- may I ask one final question?

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Sure. Go ahead.

SENATOR SUNUNU: And I think it's a short answer. In hindsight, or looking back to the very first few days of this investigation, which was a difficult time for so many people. Is there anything at this point, that you would look back and say, you know, in hindsight, in the first few days, I do wish we had taken a particular step, or structured things slightly differently or taken some time to facilitate a particular task. Anything that you could identify, Administrator?

MR. O'KEEFE: I guess as a personal and professional philosophy, my attitude is, make the best decision you can based on the information you have at the time and move on and continue to progress. I don't spend a lot of time thinking back to what we mighta, coulda, shoulda, woulda. I think it is as professional and as straight forward a process as I know how to do. And it was within hours that the -- not only the NASA team, but also the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was impaneled and the investigation began immediately.

Everybody followed a contingency plan that I had personally reviewed several times, in the event something like this could happen, and was very content that starting at 9:29 that morning, the first action item on that contingency plan was actionable, and we followed that procedure exactly the way we had talked about it. Secure in the knowledge that we would likely not ever have to use it, we nonetheless had to. And I just can't look back on that and really revise the history of it.

If I could, very quickly, Senator, just observe one point, I think in the discussion here that you've had on the strikes, this is -- the tile damage on each and every flight, Admiral Gehman's got it exactly right. Some of it comes from foam strikes, no question about it. And there are many other things that will also damage the tile. Of those 25,000 tiles that are aboard, as soon as every orbiter has landed, the first thing the Commander wants to do -- first, and Senator McCain will appreciate this, is want to make sure that the wheels are right on the center line on the center line of the runway. That's the first obsession on the part of every Commander.

The next step though, is to walk around the orbiter and observe every one of these strikes. And there are lots and lots of streaking that occurs on the tiles. And based on the condition of those tiles, they're either replaced or repaired in between flights. And the issue that I think Admiral Gehman was talking about -- so, in other words, there's a lot of contributing factors, not just foam, but plenty of other incidents that will occur on orbit or on reentry that will create the visible kind of damage to the tiles onboard the Shuttle itself. And each of those are either replaced or repaired.

But the issue I think that Admiral Gehman was raising that really, really is a point of deep consternation with us right now, that we're really doing a lot of soul searching about, is there are certain aspects of this that were tolerated, because it had this exacting kind of, no unusual circumstance out of the norm. And so what academics are referring to is the normalization of deviation, as in, you see it so many times, you finally consider it to be an acceptable condition, is the issue. That's the point we're really doing some deep soul search about.

And as we talked about earlier, why we ever got into a position where we tolerated anything greater than zero on this, is the point we're really debating among ourselves right now. And trying to determine how we create a system that would never tolerate that kind of circumstance again.

And it's not just foam. It's the range of things that could tell you in a trend, what could potentially become a deep compromise to safety of flight consideration. That's the deeper issue that I think is being raised by the Board, that we're hearing in public testimony, we're hearing supported, and we're clearly seeing evidence of that concern, and we wrestle with how do you adjust that process to assure that kind of understanding in the future. Thank you, Senator.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Mr. O'Keefe, did you request $15.5 million for the Institute for Scientific Research in Fairmont, West Virginia?

MR. O'KEEFE: No, sir.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: How about $7.6 million for hydrogen research being conducted by the Florida State University system?

MR. O'KEEFE: Not that I'm aware of.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: 2.25 million for the Life Sciences building at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island? Notice that each of these are geographically specific. How about $1.8 million for the construction of a Gulf of Maine laboratory at the Gulf of Maine Aquarium Foundation? Did you request that?

MR. O'KEEFE: No, sir. Not that I'm aware of.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: How about 1.35 million for the expansion of the Earth Science Hall at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, Maryland? Did you ask for that?

MR. O'KEEFE: No, sir.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: I understand also, you're paying for a bug exhibit in Chicago, or were. Did you -- I saw that on one of the networks. Did you see that?

MR. O'KEEFE: I'm not aware of it, sir.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: And yet your budget has been largely flat.

MR. O'KEEFE: About a 3 percent increase last year and projected, if Congress will tolerate, about a 4.5 increase this year that we hope for Congress' support.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: I'm talking about in previous years.

MR. O'KEEFE: Yes, sir. Prior.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Well, in the issue of responsibility, Admiral Gehman, I hope that you will, in your deliberations, if there is programs -- critical programs that have been under-funded, in this pork barrel spending, which is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, over the past two years, hundreds of millions of dollars, unrequested and on some outrageous, some not so outrageous. Some of it may be good things. None of it requested.

As I mentioned earlier, it went from in 1990 -- in 1998, from 24.7 million to 167 million in 2003. I hope that the Board, when we're talking about responsibility, will talk about the responsibility of Congress to spend these monies that are earmarked for NASA. They're supposed to be for programs associated with NASA, rather than pork barrel spending. And whether that may have impacted the funding of critical programs. I hope that the Board will be looking at that, Admiral Gehman.

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: We will, sir. We're gonna look at budgets and $100 million will buy a lot of safety engineers.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Thank you, sir. As I mentioned, last year it was 167 million. And some of it just staggers the imagination. Has no more relation than -- well, anyway. I have one additional question for Mr. O'Keefe. We all know what happened with the Soyuz Capsule, steep angle, 10 Gs, 300 miles away, no radio communications. Are you confident that that is a vehicle that should be used in this interim period? And if not, what are the options?

MR. O'KEEFE: Certainly this was a outside the norm landing pattern. It was the first upgrade -- I'm sorry. It was an upgrade of the Soyuz Capsule and it was the first time that specific upgrade module had flown. The Rosaviacosmos, the Russian Space Agency, is conducting an investigation now. We are a participant. We've got members who are involved there. We've got a significant team of folks who are resident in Moscow and in Star City, who are working with the Russian engineers to determine exactly how this particular abnormality occurred. But it is not outside the envelope of what would have been expected. A ballistic reentry can and does occur, very infrequently, but it did. And in this particular case, trying to determine exactly what caused it in this particular case, is what our objective is all about.

Having said that, it has not posed a safety of flight, you know, factor. And it's not one that our outside folks, General Stafford and others, who have reviewed the flight worthiness of the Soyuz, have concluded that it is a more than acceptable flight worthy craft for the purpose of the effort we're engaged in now, to replace the International Space Station Expedition crews. So, our confidence still very high. It was, no question about it, the better part of two and a half hours of extremely anxious period, and four hours before we were able to get a visual, look them right in the eye, determination that yes, everybody was okay.

But all the commentary from everyone -- I met with all the crew immediately after they returned to Star City that day, and they found that while it was an exciting trip, it was not, nonetheless, something that they were untrained for. They knew that was in the envelope of how that happens.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: 10 Gs is a pretty --.

MR. O'KEEFE: -- It was really --.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: -- (inaudible) experience.

MR. O'KEEFE: Yes, sir. No doubt about it.

CHAIRMAN McCAIN: Senator Nelson has promised me that he will take a maximum of 10 minutes. Realizing that you've already been here for well over two hours. And I appreciate his involvement, his experience and what he brings to this Committee on a variety of issues. But particularly on this one. He's also a man of his word, 10 minutes.

Senator Nelson.

SENATOR NELSON: Mr. Chairman, as long as they don't give 10 minute answers. Mr. O'Keefe, were you aware of the piece of debris that left the Shuttle on flight day one?

MR. O'KEEFE: No, sir.

SENATOR NELSON: Who was aware? And would they have had a responsibility of telling you about that debris?

MR. O'KEEFE: Let me give you a full list of all the people who were aware of that particular incident.

SENATOR NELSON: Make it short, because I've got lots of questions and he wants to keep --.

MR. O'KEEFE: -- We'll provide that for the record, sir.

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: Senator, the piece of debris orbiting the Shuttle on flight day two, was not discovered until six days after the accident. Nobody knew about this thing when the flight.

SENATOR NELSON: Thank you for sharing that. Well, given the fact of the multiple thousands of hits from foam in the past, how far -- did the safety people directly engage in a discussion about the foam hits?

MR. O'KEEFE: I'm advised they did. As recently as STS 113 Mission, which was the one immediately preceding 107. There was a discussion at the flight readiness review of the foam strike, of significance, the bipod strike that had occurred on 112. And they had reviewed that particular matter.

SENATOR NELSON: Well, Admiral, of course that will be a main part of your investigation. Admiral, when do you expect your Commission to issue a report?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: We're event driven. I would characterize us as finishing up the investigation phase right now and we're beginning the deliberation. We're going to move here to DC the first week in June, and begin writing. It would be my goal, assuming that the Board can move along with me, to have our report delivered to you prior to the August recess. But I have to caveat that, that's my goal.

SENATOR NELSON: Are you contemplating that you're going to recommend that the vehicle should be fully recertified?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: I'm afraid I'm going to have to duck that question. Because we haven't got to that point yet. Every time we come to a conclusion about a recommendation, we issue it as soon as we can. We have a number that are percolating up right now and that's not one of them.

SENATOR NELSON: And of course, as I said at the outset, it's enormously important to us that your are successful in this and that we can get on, and get the thing fixed and start flying again. Now, in view of that, Mr. Administrator, I wanted to ask you, what are you anticipating in the way of an impact on the Shuttle workforce?

MR. O'KEEFE: We are looking to mitigate that as much as possible right now and indeed, folks are very busy in preparation in working through the issues on return to flight. If anything, I think we're going to be short of folks that we may need, because again, the nature of the recommendations that Admiral Gehman and the Board have released thus far, as well as those yet to come, will require a diligent, extremely vigorous implementation of that effort, which will require everybody in the space flight community turning to very, very hard.

SENATOR NELSON: By the way, Admiral, on the previous answer, why did we not discover on flight day two, that piece of debris trailing? Why was it only after the accident?

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: Right. Senator, the United States does not currently track the Shuttle. The United States Air Force Space Command and US Strategic Command, keep track of everything that's in space. They keep track of all of our satellites, including the Shuttle, when it's on-orbit, for the purpose of making sure they don't run into each other. But we don't track it in the sense like a fire control guidance system or anything like that watches it.

After this accident, we asked the US Strategic Command and Air Force Space Command to go back over all their millions and millions of records, and pull out all of their observations of the Shuttle, to see whether or not any damage could be detected. They could not detect any damage, but they found 3,100 observations of the Shuttle, due course, and they discovered in their reconstruction, oh, look at this. Here's something that's orbiting alongside the Shuttle, which was reported to us six days after the accident.

SENATOR NELSON: Thank you for clarifying that.

Mr. O'Keefe, there's always this gut wrenching question, about whether the crew should have been told. What was the crew told about the strike by the foam and the likelihood of the damage?

MR. O'KEEFE: To my knowledge, again I'll clarify this for the record if it needs further, they were not advised of that and were not advised of any significant damage, because again, it was inside what was deemed -- on every previous flight, every time it had occurred, within the realm of acceptable and not a safety flight consideration. So, therefore, it wasn't with them specifically. A lot of other things were. Many other issues were raised with the crew regularly. But this didn't rise to that level. It was a judgment call, and one that was determined not to be a safety of flight consideration.

SENATOR NELSON: And Admiral, as you make your recommendations I would respectfully suggest that the old timers would say that they would definitely want the crew involved.

ADMIRAL GEHMAN: I think that if you'll let us respond for the record, Senator, I think that we can shed more light on that subject. I think there's -- I'm not completely conversant with every detail, but the crew was advised at some time. And I don't know exactly when and what day it was, or whether they were consulted or not, but let us get that for the record for you. There are some facts.

MR. O'KEEFE: On that point, Admiral, exactly right. I guess the question as I interpreted it Senator, I apologize, was that were they specifically consulted and advised about it. They received the daily flight reports from the Mission Management Team and on those reports was the noted incident of strike and a resolution of the question, I believe on day 12. In which unambiguously it says, we've analyzed this, examined the issues and determined it is not a safety of flight consideration. So, it was treated as another data point. It was not something that was raised specifically.

So, as you are well aware, the process during the course of on-orbit is you receive lots of data, lots of information, lots of reporting back and forth from Mission Control. And it comes in many forms -- some by voice, some by the notice and requirements, but on this particular case, it was noted on the Mission Management Team reports and that will be provided for the record, as I think it was on February 12th -- that hearing. But there was not a specific dialogue that I'm aware of, with the Commander or the payload specialists. I'm sorry, the Mission Specialists aboard that were specifically engaged in the activity. I don't believe that was the case, but I'll provide that for the record as well.

SENATOR NELSON: Well, I know that to cut the crew out, you're eliminating a great resource. And I know that there have been many occurrences where emergencies have arisen in the past, that the crew responded immediately, and had the problem fixed before Mission Control even knew about it. So, you all will deliberate that in due time.

Well, let me just wrap-up here for the Chairman. And you can provide these for the record. What I want to do is what all of us want to do. I want us to get the problem fixed and get flying and get back and utilize these wonderful assets that we have out there, including the Space Station. But we're going to have to attend to safety in a way that we never have. And of course, you have heard me rail from this podium in the past, about over the past decade, of the safety upgrades not being done on the Space Shuttle and delayed.

So, if you, Mr. Administrator, will provide for the record, how does NASA determine what Shuttle upgrades are required and how these upgrades will be selected and prioritized. And does NASA have a 20/20 plan to show when the Shuttle upgrade requirements will be completed? And then, if you will round that out, as we are grappling to get the technologies for a follow-on vehicle, why have we seen so many missteps in the development of a second generation technology in NASA's program? Any comment now, and then if you would, supply the rest of it for the record.

MR. O'KEEFE: Yes, sir. I'd be delighted to provide all that for the record. We are moving ahead aggressively on the Orbital Space Plane, to guarantee a crew transfer vehicle to pass between here and the International Space Station. That's its mission, that's its objective. To use then the Shuttle for the purpose of the heavy lift cargo capacities required. That's a midterm kind of a requirement.

We're also developing the next generation launch technologies which will ultimately provide for a spex -- excuse me, space exploration vehicle, whether it is a replacement for the Shuttle or not is something we ought to think about long and hard, because it is only capable of orbit within low-Earth orbit. It has minimal maneuverability. It has no power generation source of its own. All of which are things we need to correct from a technology standpoint, to look at anything beyond low-Earth orbit. I think you will see emerge from this process, an answer on that front for the longer term, what replaces this capability for more expansive space exploration objectives, in very short order.

SENATOR NELSON: Gentlemen, thank you very much. The meeting is adjourned.

END

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