Transcript of NASA Press Conference with Linda Hamm, Phil Engelauf, and LeRoy Cain (part 1)

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Wednesday, July 23, 2003


  • LINDA HAM, Chairperson, STS-107
  • Mission Management Team (MMT)
  • PHIL ENGELAUF, Mission Operations Directorate, and
  • LeROY CAIN, STS-107 Ascent/Entry Flight Director

3:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time Tuesday, July 22, 2003



MR. HERRING: I will introduce the panel. Some of you have already been introduced, but since we are on the air and there is a lot of people listening, I'm sure, let me run down to my left here. It is Linda Ham who is on STS-107, served as a Space Shuttle program manager for Integration.

Phil Engelauf, to her left, is the Mission Operations Directorate representative for STS-107. He is also a veteran flight director.

A lot of you know LeRoy Cain. He served as the STS-107 Ascent/Entry flight director.

All three, I think, have some opening comments, and then I guess before we start, just for the record, Tracy, why don't we start at your end, and you guys just quickly go around, so that they all know who you are, also.

QUESTIONER: Tracy [inaudible], USA Today.

QUESTIONER: Tod Halberson [ph], Florida Today.

QUESTIONER: Eric Pianen [ph], Washington Post.

QUESTIONER: Marsha [inaudible], Associated Press.

QUESTIONER: Bill Harwood, CBS.

QUESTIONER: Mike [inaudible] Centinnel.

QUESTIONER: Mark Karo [ph], Houston Chronicle.

QUESTIONER: Jena Trab-Gold [inaudible], ABC News.

QUESTIONER: Matt Wald [ph], New York Times.

MR. HERRING: I will ask when we get to the questions -- I know these microphones work pretty well, but make sure you speak up with your questions, so everybody can hear that. With that, I will turn it over to Linda.

MS. HAM: I know most of you, but for those of you who don't know me, I will give you a little bit of history about my background here with NASA.

I have been here with NASA for 21 years. I did start in Flight Control in the Missions Ops Directorate. I was a propulsion flight controller on the Shuttle flight, and then I became a flight director in early 1990, 1991. I was a flight director for 9 years. I had been lead flight director on several missions, including a Space Lab mission which is similar to the STS-107 science mission and also for the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the servicing missions. I also did Ascent/Entry flight director.

I have been in the Shuttle program for 3-1/2 years and was in the position as manager for Integration in the Shuttle program for the last 2-1/2 years, and that includes chairmanship of the On-Orbit Mission Management Team.

Most of you know, immediately after the accident on February 1st, I chaired the Mishap Response Team. I did that for the 6 weeks immediately following the accident, and then we turned that over to the NASA Accident Investigation Team, which was led by Randy Stone.

They began their investigation while I was chairing the MRT, and during the time when they were doing the investigation, we felt that it would be appropriate for me and the program managers not to come forward and talk to the press because we didn't want to interfere with their investigation, but now that they are wrapping it up and they are in the report-writing stage, we felt it would be appropriate for me to come forward and speak to you in particular about the Mission Management Team process in a generic sense and also more flight specific on what we did on STS-107 since.

So I am really happy to have this opportunity to finally come forward and describe to you the Mission Management Team -- [audio break].


TELECONFERENCE OPERATOR: All participants, please continue to stand by. We are having technical difficulties right now. Please stand by.


MS. HAM: [In progress] -- and we have members from different centers. Kennedy Space Center has members. The Marshall Space Flight Center, those projects have members, including, for example, the external tank. We do tie into headquarters. They are tied into every MMT.

The MMT, our responsibilities are to review the content, the mission replanning, any significant issues that come up, and to develop a future plan. So it is sort of, during the flight, kind of a pyramid of all the other meetings that are going on. There is a lot of meetings, a lot of activity in the control center that go on during the flight.

I did chair the MMT for 107 in particular. We do operate and we communicate, and everything that we do, we do it as a team. Like I said, it is kind of the top of the pyramid of all the activities that are going on during the flight. So outside of the MMT, we are still -- I come into the control center, talk to the flight directors, talk to the MOD rep, talk to the MER. I go down there every day during the flight.

The MER, I will talk about that a little bit. The engineering hub in the control center on the first floor of the control center, they housed all the systems experts. These experts addressed the technical issues, and the results of their analysis are communicated to the MER manager and their management up to the MMT.

The MER manager is actually a NASA person, but all of the subsystem experts are a contractor. They are either the United States Alliance or Boeing.

If we have a specific problem that we are going to work, for example, we had the assessment team, we pull together a special team. We usually call them PRT, Problem Resolution Team, which I am sure you have heard of in the past. They will, again, meet, below even the MER management level, and they are accountable to the MER. They will brief the MER in meetings that happen in that room, and to MER managers, both NASA and contractor site, and the important things that come out of those meetings will be forwarded to the MMT.

So that is kind of generically how the process works, and one of those PRTs that was a specific team that worked 107, we called the Debris Assessment Team that you have heard about and we have read about in the papers.

That was it.

MR. HERRING: Okay. Phil?

MR. ENGELAUF: I will just keep my comments brief, just to give you a little background about myself.

As Linda indicated, I was the Mission Operation Directorate representative on this flight for STS-107. I am a flight director by discipline, started with NASA some 25 years ago at [inaudible] Research Center, but I have been here at JSC since 1982, started out as a flight planner in the Shuttle program.

I was selected as a flight director in January of 1990 and have been doing that job essentially ever since that time.

I have served as a flight director on 29 Space Shuttle mission, have been the lead flight director on 11 of those, and as most of you are aware, just before the first of the year, Wayne Hale [ph] accepted an assignment at Kennedy Space Center, and he transferred down there. Wayne was the deputy chief of the Flight Director office at the time, and when he went to the Cape, I moved up and took the deputy for Space Shuttle within the Flight Director office.

On this particular mission, I served as the Mission Operations Directorate representative. As Linda indicated, the MMT has representatives from all of the various disciplines and responsible organizations. Mission Operations Directorate provide the Flight Control Team. We do the traditional mission control function that most of you think of when you see pictures of the Flight Control Team during missions. The flight director is the head of that team, and we are represented to the Mission Management Team by a single individual who is not a console operator for that particular flight.

It is traditionally the chief of the Flight Director office or one of his deputies, and in this particular case, that was myself.


MR. CAIN: Thanks. Again, I will be brief, also, because I know most of you and have spoken to most of you at least once already.

My background briefly, I have been working here at Johnson Space Center for about 15 years. I also started in flight control. I had various different positions in flight control as well as flight control management for about 10 years, and in 1998, I was selected to be a flight director.

Since that time, I have served as a flight director on several missions in ascent/on-orbit phase as well as entry, and STS-107 was my fifth mission that I worked the ascent on and the seventh mission for which I worked the entry.

MR. HERRING: Thanks, everybody.

Like I said before, we will start at this end with Tracy and then just work ourselves around. If you would, limit it to one question, and we will come back ground. Go ahead, Tracy.

QUESTIONER: For Linda Ham, can you tell us when you heard -- what have you heard about any requests for imagery of the shuttle on-orbit and how you responded to those?

MS. HAM: That is an interesting question.

We have read reports that the Mission Management Team had declined a request for outside assistance, and if you read through the transcripts, you will notice that the Mission Management Team never addressed the request for outside assistance because it never came up in any of the meetings.

It never came up to me personally. What my involvement was, was I did hear about a possible request for imagery via a phone call. When I did hear about that possible request, I began to research who was asking, and what I wanted to do was find out who that person was and what exactly they wanted to look at, so that we could get the proper people from the ops team together with this people or group of people, sit down and make sure that when we made the request, we really knew what we were trying to get out of it.

So I went to our contractor, United States Alliance, to see if they were making a request. I went to the Space Shuttle engineering office to see if they were requesting, and I also went to that Mission Evaluation Room where all the engineering work was. So I am thinking if anyone knows it, they will know that there is such a request out there.

I couldn't find any requests. So we did not pursue that.


QUESTIONER: Todd Halberson of Florida Today.

Given the hostile environment that the Shuttle flies in, I am wondering if you can tell me why you guys did not meet over the holiday weekend, the Martin Luther King holiday weekend.

MS. HAM: I wanted to say some more about this picture. You know, I had absolutely not reluctance to ask for outside assistance, nor did the program. We certainly would have done that if we could have got the right information together and the right people together and done that.

The people -- now we go to 20/20 hindsight -- several weeks after the accident, I did find out who was asking, and these folks that were asking were actually in the MMT and never brought it up. They were in the MER meetings before the MMT and never brought it up. So, for some reason, they didn't feel comfortable bringing it up in the MMT. We certainly think they would have done that at those other meetings or in the hall or at any time, and it never, never came up.

After that one day that we are referring to where I did hear about it, I never heard of another thing, and to my knowledge, it has never come up as anyone again, the request.

Okay. Now, your question?

QUESTIONER: My question was, given the dangerous nature of orbiting shuttles in this environment, I am wondering why you guys did not meet over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend.

MS. HAM: In my judgment and the judgment of the Mission Management Team, we didn't feel it was necessary to hold a meeting every day. Each of the MMT members are highly involved in the flight.

Phil comes in even when we don't hold MMTs, and we get our work done. The engineering team will still continue with their analysis. In fact, they asked if they could have over the weekend to finish the imagery analysis. They wanted through the weekend to do that.

The astronauts are still involved in contacting their people, their CAPCOMs [ph] and the Mission Control Center and the other folks. Safety is in the MER. I came in over the weekend. So, in our judgment, we felt like we didn't need to hold a meeting to continue with the work and processes that we were doing during flight.

It is not uncommon, if you look back even on Space Station flights where they are highly complex. We do not meet every day.

In fact, the last two Space Lab science kind of missions that we flew in 1998, in those two flights we had five MMTs on one and seven on another. We are also on call, 24/7. Within 2 hours, we can be in the control center having a meeting.

One of the subjects that we talked about at one of the early MMTs during the STS-107, where we were talking about a possible in-flight maintenance procedure to repower a [inaudible] that could have shorted, I said, "We are not going to do that until we hold an MMT. If you guys decide you want to pursue that path, then we will get together and meet as a team because we don't want to do something without everyone's concurrent." So it is easy for us all to come together if we need to.

MR. ENGELAUF: I'd like to add something to that, though, and you guys are familiar enough to understand.

The Flight Control Team with the flight rules, which are essentially the charter from the program, had a lot of latitude on how we operate in a real-time environment.

The Mission Management Team is exactly that. It is a management team and not a real-time flight control function. So it is important to distinguish there that the flight control time on console is there and ready to respond to any [inaudible] situations, and we really only look to the management team for direction when we get outside the envelope of predetermined objectives for the mission or if we have a phenomenal case where we call in a lot of outlying support.

As Linda pointed out, if we come into a situation like that, the Flight Control Team can engage the MMT within a matter of an hours to get additional guidance, but it is important to realize that the management team is not necessarily there to supervise the day-to-day, minute-by-minute operation of the flight. That is not the intent.

MS. HAM: Plus, the MER could call the MMT to come in.

I have people that -- actually program people support the mission, 24/7, also, in the customer support room, and they can call to invoke the MMT. We have a standard procedure on how to do that. MR. HERRING: Eric?

MR. CAIN: Tom, to complete that answer, it wouldn't be complete without saying that as a flight director on console in real time, regardless of the frequency of the Mission Management Team meeting schedule, we are in place to manage the team.

As Phil said, beyond that, we have at our ready disposal a list of names and phone numbers and direct lines of communication with folks that we can get in contact with, and as Linda and Phil mentioned, we are prepared and trained in such a way that we will call up. And whether it is for a notification or whether it is for a request for a meeting or whatever it might be, we are at the ready to do that as it becomes necessary, if it becomes necessary, and that is regardless of the frequency of the MMT meeting.

QUESTIONER: Given all of the uncertainty about the nature of the foam strike, why was it that you folks decides to quickly that it did not really pose a safety-of-flight issue, given the fact that the Crater model perhaps wasn't the best of all models available to you and given the fact that there was a lot of uncertainty about precisely how large the foam was, where it hit on the wing, whether it was on the tiles or the RCC?

And what did you mean when you said January 21st that, "Really, I don't think there's much we can do"?

MS. HAM: Well, let me answer the first question, first, about why did we quickly [inaudible], why did we come to the conclusion that it was not a safety-of-flight issue based on the Crater model.

Again, we were trying to give the technical community sufficient time to do an in-depth analysis. They did do their analysis. They did use the Crater and these other tools that they have available to them.

I do trust that the Mission Evaluation Room with their systems experts would bring forward their results of that, and they did come forward on that Friday the 24th and said that they did not believe that there was a safety-of-flight issue and that there would be no burn-through, and at most we would have a potential turnaround issue from work on the Orbiter that we have to do post-flight.

I did trust that their analysis and the work they had done was correct.

Now, back on the other question about on the 21st which when I made a statement about what we could or couldn't do during the flight, when I first was alerted to that, I couldn't even recall making that statement. But, of course, I did go back, re-read the transcript and listen to the tapes, and sure enough, I did say that.

Now, if you put that in context to what the MER manager was talking to me about and the things that I was thinking, the way I recall this is I was thinking out loud, and, of course, I do know that we do not have TPS repair, tile repair or RCC repair capability that we fly as a kit on the Orbiter. That was part of what I was thinking.

The other thing that I was trying -- thinking about was having the engineering community go back and get a flight rationale from STS-1. If you recall two flights prior to 107, we had the foam come off, a pretty big chunk of foam from the same area that we were thinking came off the 107, the bipod ramp, and it struck the SRB.

I was trying to remember back to October when we were at the flight writing review for the STS-113, the next flight, trying to think about what was our flight rationale, was it based on the fact that the density, the properties of that foam could not do any damage to the Orbiter. I couldn't recall, and I wanted the engineering to go back and pull that data, so that we could confirm that.

If that was what the flight rationale was, then we would feel pretty comfortable about this mission being safe. It didn't end up being what the flight rationale was. That is where I was going with that.

MR. HERRING: Marsha?

QUESTIONER: For Linda, I was struck by reading the transcripts that the topic of foam doesn't even come up until halfway or two-thirds through the meetings, and frankly, it looked a little skimpy, the discussion.

I am trying to understand why it wasn't at the top of the agenda because it was a potential flight safety issue, and how is it that it seemed to have got buried under a lot [inaudible]?

MS. HAM: We usually start our MMT with mission ops director just to give us a status of what who is doing, where they are in the mission, and then we go to the Mission Evaluation Room, the MER, and then he will bring things up in whatever order that he happens to bring them up on that particular day.

You will notice on that first MMT, I believe I asked about it because I did know, you know, the times that I visited the MER and talked to my office with people -- I did know we were doing the analysis. We were still looking at the ascent video. We were doing the transport analysis, which is based on where the foam comes off, where could it potentially hit on the Orbiter and at what velocity. Then the third piece would be the Orbiter piece on what could be the potential damage to the Orbiter.

It wasn't lengthy discussions, that first meeting. We knew they still had the analysis in work, just wanted to make sure it was all underway.

A lot of the things that we discussed were in the MER and in other meetings and rooms. This is sort of the top of the pyramid with senior management there. We don't actually do the analysis. So we don't get a real in-depth discussion of all the nuts and bolts that went into that.


QUESTIONER: Let me ask him a lengthy question because I am not sure how to phrase it.

I have thought a lot since this happened. I was around after 51-L, and I remember joking with other reporters after the management changes that were put in place, I would joke it will never fly, you know, there are just so many checks and balances that will have to happen.

And yet, the system that a lot of the media and outside of Ascent have criticized that very system. I mean, you guys are in that very system that was put in place after 51-L, that everybody unanimously said in this case did not work properly, somehow missed the significance of the foam strike, continued flying, the flight rationale was not correct for whatever reason, Crater was wrong, and the analysis was not correct.

So my question is: How did NASA get from the STS-26 mind-set when this management system was fresh? I have no doubt just based on experience that when STS-17 rolled around and big chunks were falling off the bipod, you guys would have stopped and fix that. I just don't have any doubt about that. That is personal opinion.

But how did you get to this point where this system failed in the way that it did? I mean, if anybody has any thoughts about that, any one of you.

MS. HAM: I think there's huge differences in the way we work today than in the Challenger time frame.

QUESTIONER: Post challenger. I'm talking post challenger.

MS. HAM: Right.

QUESTIONER: The changes that were made in the wake of Challenger.

MS. HAM: Well, we have had foam off since STS-1 from the tank. So I am not sure if the thinking before, between STS-1 and STS-26, -27, -28, that foam off was different than it is today.

QUESTIONER: This was the biggest piece ever, and when 12 was the biggest piece ever, by far from all the previous experience. I am just trying to see how this evolution took place.

MR. ENGELAUF: I don't think that the fact that this was the biggest piece ever was really -- there wasn't a lot made of that during the mission in the MMTs. I am telling you now as an observer sitting in the MMT from the ops perspective.

I think Linda's point is correct. We operate by a series of methodologies that I think have been tested over a long period of time, and we did put a lot of changes in place after the Challenger accident.

I think the way we do business today is largely representative of what we -- the changes that we moved to after Challenger.

As Linda pointed out, we have had foam come in off the tank at various intervals during the program, and I have seen this characterization, I think, that this group of management got comfortable with foam coming off the tank or that Ron or Linda or somebody got comfortable with foam coming off the tank.

And I think that is a little bit unfair because foam has been coming off the tank periodically, not -- you know, I don't want to characterize this as just constant, but we have had instances of foam coming off the tank throughout the history of the program, and the same management processes that I think got us comfortable that that was not really being a safety-of-flight issue have been allowed to continue, rightly or wrongly.

I don't think you can point to individuals today and say that that person got comfortable with it because we have sort of inherited this from the time Linda and I were back as front room flight controllers and there was a completely different set of people managing the program.

But I think the intent is that our process has tried to cover these sorts of things, and we tried to put all of the checks and balances in place and we try to do all of the analysis. On this particular case, I don't think that the problem was that we didn't do the analysis or didn't take notice of the foam. I think we got the wrong answer on the analysis.

MR. CAIN: Bill, from my part, I would just add that, to get to your question, part of the answer has to be the fact that we don't know today why we didn't have good flight rationale, and we are going to go back and certainly try to understand that better.

The board is doing a lot of work, and they will have some good suggestions and recommendations for us. We look forward to hearing their evaluation from their perspective. They have a very unique and valuable perspective that we intend to pay very close attention to, and I suspect that they will help us with that question.

My impression is, though, that at least part of the answer has to be that, fundamentally, we are dealing with an incredibly complex system, and it is the most complicated machine that humans have ever built and intended to operate. Over time, we are going to make some human errors, and that has got to be at least part of the answer.

We do everything in our power every single day in this business to manage the systems to minimize that, and over time, with as complex as a system as we are talking about and the risk environment of space, that has to be at least part of the answer and I suspect we will learn more as we move forward.


QUESTIONER: My questions are for Mr. Engelauf and Ms. Ham.

There was an exchange between the two of you in the MMT meeting, the 24th I believe, when you talked about informing the crew of the debris strike, in light of the fact that the media has found out about it, and it gives the clear impression, at least it did to me, that if we hadn't -- we the press -- hadn't found out about it that the crew never would have been told. Is that true, and why or why not?

MR. ENGELAUF: I would say that is probably true.

At the time that we sent that up to the crew and the ultimate determination that we made in the MMT, was that this was not going to be a safety-of-flight issue and, therefore, because the crew could not do anything with that information, it wasn't going to change the way that they would conduct their operations on board the vehicle. It wasn't going to change the flight plan. It was going to have no bearing on the conduct of the mission.

Over time in dealing with the crews, they are extremely busy on orbit, and bothering them with information that really doesn't bear on the conduct of the mission is just something we don't normally do.

Because we did get questions here on the ground about that and there was an upcoming press conference on board with the crew, we decided there was a possibility that they were going to get a question about it. Rather than have them be blindsided by a question that they didn't have any background on, we simply told them that, hey, there has been this issue discussed on the ground, we think it is a non-issue, and by the way, here is a little MPEG file, so you can see what we are talking about. It was very innocent.


QUESTIONER: I am Mark Karo from Houston Chronicle, and mine is for Linda Ham.

Can you tell us when during the mission in your mind, you were satisfied the foam wasn't an issue, and was there any single thing that was sort of a clincher?

MS. HAM: I believe that would be the Monday. I don't remember the date of the MMT where they closed out the last open area where they had analysis.

At the MMT on Friday -- I think it was the 24th -- they had closed out five of the six areas, had one remaining open area, and that was the main landing gear door and needed to wrap that analysis up. So I was pretty comfortable that Monday that there was no issue for the mission.


QUESTIONER: For any of you, how should the request for imaging have been handled? You make it sound like a very casual off-the-cuff process, but what should the process have been to formally request imaging that didn't happen?

MS. HAM: Well, the formal, I can explain. There is a formal route, but even an informal route we typically work. If we hear about the request, we can certainly act upon it, if we need to meet or just pursue it.

The formal process would be that if someone brought it up at the MMT or brought it up to someone when we would hold the meeting, they would share with what we wanted to do, and then we go through the Mission Ops Directorate to a [inaudible] position they have, flight dynamics officer. He had some standard procedures that they work with the Department of Defense or whoever it is to ask for the outside assistance.

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