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NASA Watch Editor Keith Cowing on "Next@CNN" 27 July 2003 (Transcript)

Status Report From: CNN
Posted: Monday, July 28, 2003

KOPPEL: Joining me now to talk about the risks that NASA takes is Keith Cowing, the creator of the nasawatch.com. Mr. Cowing, the Columbia managers knew that it was this foam strike within a, you know, day or so of the launch, but assume that it did no serious damage. Would it have changed things in the end, in perhaps saving the crew of the Columbia, if they had come to a different conclusion sooner?

KEITH COWING: Well, we're having this conversation like a lot of other people have had in hindsight. So, you know, that said, this is kind of like living in a remote country road with a gravel surface, and you drive up and down every day, and rocks fly, but you never had a problem with it. And then one day, somebody drives by you, a rock comes up and hits you in the windshield, and you're surprised. I think Miles had it correct in terms of using the words "lulled" and "complacency". They were used to seeing this, they were used to seeing foam come off of the tank. Well, the foam wasn't supposed to come off from the tank. It wasn't designed to do that. Yet every time they'd seen it in the past, they said, oh, it wasn't an issue. So, based on their experience that they were dealing with and the pressure of the moment and while the mission was going on, they did what they could. Linda Ham is not incorrect in saying that.

However, you know, just because you haven't seen damage before doesn't mean it couldn't happen. And, indeed, early on in the mission when we went to cover this, reporters would sit there, and NASA would say, oh, we know, it's like a foam cooler coming off your car in a parking lot.

Well, it wasn't. We've just seen tapes that showed exactly that that wasn't the case. So, NASA could have looked into a lot of things. This is, unfortunately, one case where they didn't look into something, and it got them.

KOPPEL: I'm sure you'll agree that it is not an understatement to say that a shuttle mission is hugely complicated involving hundreds of people. Obviously, there are people who have to work together to try to make this mission come off successfully. So, is it inevitable that some sort of, you know, management group think is going to set in?

COWING: Well, of course. You know, I worked at NASA, and I have to say that I've never worked with a more amazing group of people. But, you know, shuttle launches are a miracle in and of themselves, as are any other space missions. And you have to go through many, many events in a very short period of time, and you have to decide ahead of time, if I see this, is this acceptable? If this happens, do I stop the mission?

And as you go through a shuttle launch, they did this with -- they didn't see this as an issue. As you go through the mission, it's the same sort of thing. So, you have to -- it's the same sort of thing that allows NASA to pull these missions off is the very same thing that, well, has prevented them from getting outside the box of their experience and saying, this might be an issue.

KOPPEL: Shouldn't one person, in your opinion, be ultimately responsible for making these final decisions?

COWING: Well, you know, technically, there is a management chain. I mean, it does go up to the associate administrator for space flight, and he makes the decision, and they have a series of very methodical meetings before and up to and right at the moment of launch. So, that command chain is there.

KOPPEL: Linda Ham, who was the head of the mission management team and we saw in Miles' report there, is no longer in her position at NASA. But no one is really taking direct blame for the Columbia disaster. What message do you think that sends if no one is held accountable?

COWING: Well, you know, after NASA crashed two perfectly good probes into Mars a few years back, they said, well, nobody's going to be fired. Now, you know, on one hand, maybe everybody was responsible. But on the other hand, if there's no threat or risk or any consequences to not doing things properly, you know, people may not necessarily perform up to snuff.

Now, Linda Ham husband's an astronaut, and I don't think anybody walked in that day and said, let's got kill somebody or I'm busy. It happened as it happened, but if you just say that these things can happen and there are no real career consequences from this and she still has her job -- now, I'm not saying she should be singled out or anybody -- any specifically, you know, person or organization should be singled out, but that should not be precluded.

And as the report comes out, I think we'll see some evidence that maybe some changes need to be made in specific individuals and within organizations.

KOPPEL: Well, obviously, the space program is something that not only the Bush administration, but many administrations place a tremendous amount of import on. Hopefully, it will continue safely. Keith Cowing with nasawatch.com. Thank you so much.

COWING: My pleasure.

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