When the next space shuttle flies, the voyage will be carefully monitored each day by a new group of senior program officials determined to avoid another tragedy like the one that befell Columbia.
"During a shuttle mission this is the most important thing that we've got to do," said Wayne Hale, NASA's deputy shuttle program manager and chairman of the newly reconstituted Mission Management Team, or MMT.
Made up of senior program officials and engineers representing all the shuttle's systems, the MMT was supposed to help troubleshoot problems that Mission Control needed help with, as well as set priorities for the mission when conflicts or new opportunities arose.
Before liftoff, the team kept an eye on the three-day countdown and gives the final "go" for launch.
Problems with old team
But problems with the way the MMT operated during STS-107 last year were cited by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board as a contributing cause to the loss of vehicle and crew.
Shuttle managers did not meet often enough or spend quality time discussing the technical issues that were the ultimate cause of the tragedy, the CAIB report said.
Moreover, when faced with concerns about damage to Columbia's heat shield from external tank foam insulation during launch, MMT participants did not request all available information or challenge problems with analysis when it was presented.
Open discussion about the foam strike between worried engineers and mission managers was hampered by what is now commonly known as "NASA's flawed culture."
"Communication did not flow effectively up to or down from program managers. As it became clear during the mission that managers were not as concerned as others about the danger of the foam strike, the ability of engineers to challenge those beliefs greatly diminished," the CAIB report said.
Hale says that won't happen anymore.
Following one of the 29 findings and recommendations of the CAIB report, Hale's top job these days is to reorganize the MMT, give it new marching orders and train the members by conducting simulations.
Two sessions have been held already, and a third was scheduled for Wednesday. Hale said training runs will continue every six weeks through the return to flight launch.
"We have had a virtually complete turnover in the space shuttle program management team," Hale said. "And so while everybody is a shuttle veteran, like I am, we're all going to be operating in new positions. There's definitely some training that is required."
Classroom training, simulations and reading assignments all are part of the plan to get back to flight, Hale said.
Taking it more personally
In addition to learning how to take advantage of new sources of information — such as launch video from new long-range cameras — the team will have to learn something about each others' jobs.
"I'm trying very hard to change the team around to say that you're not just responsible for your part," Hale said.
Hale wants to make sure that an engineer who works on the external tank, for example, has the knowledge to ask questions of someone who works on the shuttle's life support system.
Hale's message to the MMT: "All of you folks on this team are senior people in the agency. You have technical backgrounds. You have a wide variety of experience in many areas. And when we come in and talk about a problem you need to be engaged on all problems, not just the ones your job title would indicate you are primarily responsible for."
One question Hale still is wrestling with is when the MMT will conduct its daily meetings once the shuttle is in orbit.
Officials want to make sure there is some time allowed between the shuttle MMT meeting and the space station's MMT, that the meetings take place in time to allow any decisions to be passed on to the flight control team in a timely manner, or that they be held after major events such as a spacewalk or docking.
"In an ideal situation we will schedule our meetings along those lines, and whatever time of day that works out to be we will deal with that," Hale said. "So I am in the process of formulating some scheduling guidelines. And it will be a little bit of a balancing act to work around these different requirements."
As for the duration of the meeting, Hale said the days of MMT sessions lasting 10 to 15 minutes are through, and noted that the first training simulation ran some four hours.
"Obviously there's a practical window on that. You can't meet for 24 hours a day and then pick up with the next day's meeting, but our pledge is we're going to take the time that we need to make sure that we thoroughly reviewed everything to the level that we need to get to, to have a good decision before we quit."
And everyone will have a say in each decision, Hale said.
"You have to respond. This is not just a 'Does anybody have a problem with what we're going to do. Didn't hear anything, so we're gonna do it,'" Hale said.
Everyone to speak up
Each person will be specifically asked if they agree about whatever the issue is they are dealing with. At the same time, the polling will not serve as a vote about which course of action to take. There will be no Robert's Rules of Order for the MMT, Hale said.
"We're not that kind of body. In actuality, there's always a decision maker and the chairman is responsible for the decision," Hale said. "The more complete story is it's very much a consensus operation."
Everyone around the table will "have to be satisfied it's safe and proper or we shouldn't do it," Hale said. The table's shape and the exact number of people are still to be determined.
"The conduct of our meeting is going to be different. We're going to ask for dissenting opinions. We're going to make sure we operate at a slightly slower pace so those people who might feel a little inhibition from talking because of sociology — or I don't know what you want to call it — would have a chance to speak their mind."
One concern Hale is watching out for is not to fall into the trap of second-guessing every engineer's analysis or management decision, such that the MMT begins chasing its own shadow.
"Before, we were too arrogant and not safe enough, and surely you can go to the other end of that scale and be too risk-averse, so concerned with safety that you can't get anything done," Hale said. "There is a happy medium there, and we are in search of it."
"Have we come to the right place? That, I think, remains to be seen. I don't know how you rate that except by results."