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Post-Columbia NASA hunkers down

NBC News space analyst James Oberg says the way NASA managers responded to questions about the Columbia tragedy serves as a bad omen for the coming clash over an investigative panel’s final report.
Linda Ham, who led Columbia’s Mission Management Team. and Philip Engelauf, the mission operations representative on the team, meet the press at an impromptu roundtable Tuesday.
Linda Ham, who led Columbia’s Mission Management Team. and Philip Engelauf, the mission operations representative on the team, meet the press at an impromptu roundtable Tuesday.
/ Source: NBC News

NASA spaceflight operations officials argued Tuesday that the loss of the space shuttle Columbia was nobody’s fault, and that they couldn’t have done anything wrong because of their pure intentions. They couldn’t think of anything they did wrong, but they also promised to do better in the future.

These comments come as part of NASA’s hunkering down in anticipation of being seriously skewered by the report now being written by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The group, often referred to as the Gehman Committee after the retired admiral who chairs it, has already issued its technical explanation of the loss of Columbia and its seven astronauts on Feb. 1. The main thrust of their other report, due for release by the end of August, will be how NASA’s culture allowed the disaster to happen.

The impromptu press roundtable at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston was organized to discuss documents that the space agency had just released that morning. These were transcripts of meetings of the Mission Management Team, the group that provides day-to-day decisions during human space missions. The tapes had been made in January and transcribed in the first week of February, and after six months NASA had gotten around to releasing them to the public.

The NASA official in charge of the Mission Management Team meetings was Linda Ham, an experienced flight control engineer and flight director. Along with fellow Mission Control Center management representative Philip Engelauf and flight director Leroy Cain (who had been on duty during the Columbia descent on Feb. 1), Ham answered questions from reporters during the half-hour roundtable.

Assessing the data
Discussion centered on the critical juncture on Jan. 24, eight days into the flight, when contractor engineers presented the results of their studies of the potential damage of the foam impact during launch. They had correctly estimated the size of the piece and its mass, and had mapped out possible impact points on the wing, including what investigators now say was the actual point of impact.

They had also properly used both computer models and flight experience data to assess the damage to be expected on the fragile thermal tiles, and concluded that there might be significant tile damage that would require repair before the shuttle could be launched again — but no “burn-through,” and no “safety-of-flight” issue. Hindsight validated these assessments.

But when it came time to assess the hazard of foam impact on the special high-temperature leading-edge panels — the reinforced carbon-carbon, or RCC — they had no test data, no analysis tools, no database of flight experience. So they just guessed. They assumed it would be OK. And NASA officials — particularly Linda Ham, who was in charge of that meeting — let them get away with it.

Their presentation had stated that the RCC panels were even stronger than tiles because of the “relative softness of [foam].” Thus they concluded that “RCC damage [is] limited to [loss of] coating based on soft [foam].” The conclusion wasn’t based on any analysis or actual testing NASA had never done any foam impacts on RCC. The engineers just guessed that foam, being soft, couldn’t — even at 500 mph (800 kilometers per hour) — hurt the quarter-inch-thick (5-millimeter-thick) RCC panels. Unlike the shuttle’s tiles, which are supported under their entire area by aluminum skin, the RCC panels were supported only by bolts at their corners.

Veterans vent their outrage
Old-timers from Apollo days have privately expressed outrage at this misjudgment, and at Ham’s (and all other officials’) acquiescence to the guess.

“Kraft or Kranz would never have let it go by,” one of them told by e-mail, referring to the legendary Apollo-era flight directors Christopher Kraft and Gene Kranz. “They would have demanded to know on what basis this impact was considered safe — or demanded a way to determine whether there was any damage or not.”

But the new generation of officials at NASA disclaimed any responsibility for requiring such proof.

“None of us felt that the analysis was faulty,” Ham said Tuesday. “We do rely on the systems experts. That is the way that we operate.”

Early in July, directed by the Gehman Committee, NASA finally conducted a test of real foam against real RCC panels. Under conditions simulating the actual ascent of Columbia on Jan. 16, the impact blew a foot-wide hole in the leading edge of the front left wing. A hole of that size was completely adequate to account for the subsequent destruction of the shuttle 16 days later.

The Apollo veterans do not allege that officials should have known in advance that such fatal damage had occurred on this flight. They do point out that the traditional NASA safety culture — assume the worst until you have rigorously proven that it’s safe — would have at the very least demanded that officials make efforts to assure themselves that no such damage had actually been done. Instead, they simply and conveniently assumed that such damage was impossible.

Even at Tuesday’s roundtable, the officials saw nothing wrong in their decisions. “I don’t believe anyone is at fault for this,” said Ham. Engelauf and Cain agreed: Their decisions were based on “the best available data and analysis at the time.”

Engelauf specifically blamed the engineers who did the analysis: “On this particular case, I don’t think the problem was we didn’t do the analysis or didn’t take notice of the foam. I think we got the wrong answer on the analysis,” he said.

The officials also said they thought it was important that they had good intentions and tried hard. “Well, it goes without saying that we were all trying to do the right thing,” Ham said. “Nobody wanted to do any harm to anyone. Obviously, nobody wants to hurt the crew.”

Engelauf went further, bristling at an imagined insult. “It’s unconscionable to me that people can attribute to the members of the MMT or the flight control team or the rest of the folks during these missions anything other than the best of intentions,” he said. “These are people of good conscience doing everything in their power to get the right answers. This is what we do for a living.

“We lost the crew and we lost the vehicle,” he conceded, “... but it is not because of lack of good intent or lack of effort on anybody’s part. ... It’s really difficult to me to attribute blame to any individual personalities or people. We can find mistakes in analyses and we can find places where we weren’t good enough. But it’s not because of malice or ill intent.”

Knowing what's broken
None of the outside experts who talked with suggested that these officials had anything but the best intentions. But they suspect that perhaps the officials confused good intentions with good judgment.

At the point that the officials made these mistakes, it may well have been too late to save the crew. But these officials all agreed that had they known about the severity of the damage (while excusing themselves of their responsibility to make a reliable determination of that severity), they would literally have moved heaven and earth to develop a rescue or makeshift repair plan.

This obsession with after-the-fact justification of the decisions — or the lack of required decisions — that led to the loss of the crew is a bad omen for the imminent clash with the Gehman Committee’s diagnosis of what is wrong inside NASA’s culture and what must be fixed. Fixing something requires knowledge that it is broken, whether it’s a spaceship wing, or a space culture. NASA’s shortsightedness in not recognizing how badly broken Columbia was gave them no chance to fix it, and seven people died. Officials at NASA seem equally unable to see what’s broken about their own culture. Until they recognize it, it’s equally unlikely they’ll be able to fix that flaw, either.

James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer.