In the land of rocket science, where numbers count for everything and hunches are scorned, two men are on a mission more difficult than plugging a hole in the space shuttle. They’re trying to make NASA’s shuttle program a warmer, fuzzier place by recrafting the culture that doomed Columbia, and Challenger before that. To these reformers, that means being super-sensitive about their words, their tone, their height, even the shape of their conference table.
“None of this is too touchy-feely for me,” says Bill Parsons, an ex-Marine who took over NASA’s decimated shuttle program following the Columbia accident.
Parsons knows his 6-foot-5, 222-pound frame is intimidating, so he tries not to tower over anyone. He’s recruited a colleague to critique his meetings with employees, to make sure he sends the right message and sets an encouraging tone.
His hand-picked deputy, Wayne Hale, a shorter, stouter fellow, is stocking up on sociology books and reshaping the team that oversees each shuttle flight, along with the team’s conference table.
“We talk about the shape of the table and everybody giggles,” he says.
Hale hasn’t hit the furniture store yet. But he’s trying to figure out “how to deal with the human question, the human element in these communication issues.”
This is all penance for Columbia’s final flight.
Columbia accident investigators blasted NASA for creating an environment in which engineers were too afraid to speak up about potential dangers and managers were too caught up with flight schedules.
The space agency’s broken culture, along with a ripped slice of insulating foam, proved deadly for Columbia and its seven astronauts. For Challenger and its seven astronauts 17 years earlier, it was a decayed culture combined with cold-stiffened O-rings.
‘New age NASA’ has its critics
The flight director who guided the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Apollo 13 rescue finds the space agency’s new, soft, mushy approach distasteful — and flat-out wrong.
“Look, these people are professionals. They’re being paid a professional wage. If they have a problem, I expect them to stand up and speak up. Period,” says Gene Kranz, the subject of the recent History Channel documentary, “Failure Is Not an Option.” The title is borrowed from his 2000 autobiography.
“We’ve got 19- and 20- and 21-year-olders over in Iraq right now who have to make daily decisions. It’s no ambiguity. I don’t think we should expect anything less of the people who are working in the space program. Daily decisions, no ambiguity,” the 70-year-old Kranz says, his words clipped as short as his lifelong crewcut.
Kranz isn’t the only old-timer complaining about the New Age NASA.
Retired space program veterans from the 1960s and ’70s are asking Hale how he, as chairman of the mission management team for all future shuttle flights, will make potential life-and-death decisions if there is an overload of opinion, gut feelings and hunches — and no consensus.
Do what we did, they tell him.
Hale shudders at the thought.
“They were dealing with all-white males, and there was a lot of in-your-face, militaristic almost (communication),” says Hale, 49, a former shuttle flight director.
Soft-spoken and bald with a storyteller’s voice and a fondness for space-motif and stars-and-stripes ties, he says: “I’m still a student at this, but if you want to inhibit communication, that’s a good way to do it these days.”
Even Parsons, 46, a former Marine infantry officer, disapproves of nose-to-nose yelling matches.
“To be honest, there are a lot of people I thought were much more qualified to do this job than myself. But I think the reason I was picked is because I can nurture a team. I can help that team grow confidence in itself,” he says in a thick Mississippi accent.
Parsons was director of NASA’s Stennis Space Center in his home state when the space agency asked him to move to Houston for the top shuttle job last spring, three months after the Columbia tragedy. He replaced Ron Dittemore, the face and voice of NASA in the wake of the disaster.
A one-time sub-six-minute-miler, Parsons maintains a runner’s physique under natty dress suits. He knows he can’t escape his big Marine image.
“But I’ve spent my life trying to make sure that I didn’t intimidate people. I don’t like to walk up to people and tower over them. I know how that feels,” he says.
“I care about people’s feelings.”
Lessons from Columbia
NASA spaceflight officials never used to worry about the emotional ramifications of their actions or fear among the working masses — “the working-level devils,” as Kranz affectionately calls them.
The opinions of technicians and engineers, no matter how low on the ladder, were not only respected, but sought by flight directors like the legendary Kranz. He practiced “defense in depth,” so that if a technical problem slipped past one group, it would be caught by the next, or the next. He demanded toughness, competence, confidence.
He contends the NASA of yesteryear would not have allowed the Columbia accident. The system would have fixed the recurring launch problem of breakaway fuel-tank foam, he says.
Midlevel management — gutted during the 1990s to save money — is where Kranz would turn to hear about workers’ gut feelings. If two or three workers had the same hunch — even without data to back it up — then that would be enough for Kranz to call a halt and investigate, and to collect more data.
The framed plaque from that era still hangs in the Mission Evaluation Room at Johnson Space Center, downstairs from Mission Control:
“In God we trust, all others bring data.”
With Columbia, engineers had no data, just a sick, sinking feeling when they saw the video and film images of the chunk of foam smacking the ship’s left wing during liftoff in January. Their repeated requests for spy satellite pictures were ignored or overruled, so no one knew Columbia had a mortal gash that would let in scorching atmospheric gases when the spacecraft headed home.
To his everlasting regret, Hale — who initially pursued the request for satellite photos — ultimately came down on the side of mission management team leader Linda Ham, who nixed the pictures.
Hale grows quiet when asked if the episode was a good lesson in his new role as Ham’s replacement: “It’s a lesson that was too dear to learn ... the price was too high.”
Columbia was lost over Texas that Saturday morning in February, when the ship ripped apart just 16 minutes short of a Florida homecoming. Hale was waiting at the Kennedy Space Center landing strip, along with other agency bigwigs and the astronauts’ families.
By summer, Ham was shoved into a lower-ranking engineering job and Hale was moving back to Houston from Cape Canaveral.
Parsons needed him.
Not only does Hale live every day with the pain of being wrong, he also knows firsthand what it’s like to be too afraid to speak up.
Last year, he was angry when NASA headquarters in Washington issued computer screen-savers to shuttle managers counting down in days, hours, minutes and seconds to the Feb. 19, 2004, launch date for the final U.S. segment of the international space station.
Hale vowed to write NASA boss Sean O’Keefe that the screen-savers were sending the wrong message by stressing flight deadlines and putting pressure on everyone. But he didn’t.
“I was inhibited for sociological reasons. He’s way up there, I’m way down here. He didn’t want my advice and he didn’t know who I am.
“Now you talk about guilt.”
In its final report in August, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board cited the screen-savers as evidence of the timetable pressure that contributed to the tragedy.
There were other signs that troubled Hale long before the Columbia breakup, yet he never complained to the people who mattered like O’Keefe or NASA’s previous chief, Daniel Goldin.
Throughout the 1990s, shuttle managers kept being pressed from the top to make do with less money — and to even do more. Hale penny-pinched along with the rest.
“It’s the frog in the pot of water story,” Hale says. “You try to put a frog in a boiling pot of water, he’ll jump out. If you put him in a pot of cold water and turn the heat up, slowly by degrees, you can cook the frog. Well, I think we were in the pot of water that slowly got turned up by degrees and didn’t realize what we were up against.”
‘We can't get it wrong this time'
Now, Parsons, Hale and everyone else at NASA vow to carry out all 29 recommendations made by the Columbia investigators, regardless of cost or consternation. Half the new measures are to be fulfilled before shuttle flights resume a year or more from now.
As the mission management chairman, Hale is doubling the team members to more than 30, insisting on daily meetings that run as long as necessary during flights, requiring thorough briefings on the fuel tank, booster rockets and other critical components, bringing in outside experts for group decision-making advice, and putting everyone through training sessions that mimic emergencies.
The Columbia investigators insisted on expanded training for mission managers, following their dismal performance in January.
As part of the catharsis — for him and the entire shuttle program — Hale is also readily accepting blame for the disaster. No whining. No denying.
“We fouled up,” he says.
According to Hale, some at NASA still believe there isn’t much to fix, just a tweak here and there.
Others wonder what the culture fuss is all about.
“Culture. I don’t know exactly what that word means. I’m going to find out, I’m sure, in the next year or so what it means,” says Milt Heflin, an Apollo veteran who heads NASA’s flight director office.
At the opposite extreme are those calling for radical, revolutionary change.
“The truth probably lies somewhere in between, as it generally does,” Hale says.
Parsons already sees a shift in attitude and a desire to learn from mistakes. But he says it will be a gradual process.
“I don’t want to give the impression that people are different and they’ve changed, and now we’ve seen the light,” Parsons says. “We are working on it.”
Everyone knows, deep down, that failure is no longer an option.
“I’m kind of surprised that the program didn’t end when Columbia crashed,” says Hale. “Before, I would have told you one more shuttle accident and we’ll be done.
“The country right now is giving us another chance, and we can’t get it wrong this time.”