Shuttle Columbia: The Search for Answers
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
TERENCE SMITH: While investigators continued to probe for the cause of the “Columbia” disaster, newly released e-mails show a high level of concern among NASA engineers that the shuttle’s problems could prove fatal. The series of e-mail exchanges from the last days of “Columbia’s” flight were released by NASA in response to media requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The e-mails show some engineers debating among themselves possible “worst-case” and “what if” scenarios.
One raised the possibility of potential damage to the shuttle’s left wing upon reentry. On Jan. 31, for example, the day before the accident, a flight controller at Johnson Space Center, was worried that superheated air could get into the shuttle. Jeffrey Kling wrote: “If there was hot plasma sneaking into the wheel wells, we would see increases in our landing gear temperatures and likely our tire pressures. Ultimately our recommendation in that case is going to be to set up for a bailout (assuming the wing doesn’t burn off before we can get the crew out).” Another e-mail said superiors should ask the Defense Department to photograph the shuttle’s tile section during descent, a request that was first made, and then withdrawn. Other e-mails from different engineers refer to the possibility of “total crew loss,” and describe an environment within NASA where “getting information is being treated like the plague.”
One of the most explicit e-mails came on Jan. 28, when engineer Robert Daugherty asked: “Any more activity today on the tile damage, or are people just relegated to crossing their fingers and hoping for the best?” At a NASA budget hearing before the House Science Committee today, the agency’s administrator, Sean O’Keefe, was asked whether the e-mails had been adequately screened at the highest levels.
SEAN O’KEEFE: Based on what I can see, the vetting of all this information that occurred on orbit during the operational mission was handled by the individuals. They vetted those questions, satisfied themselves there were solutions that could be found, and determined if there was a safety-of-flight risk to be attendant to that, and ascertained that there was not in their judgment.
REP. LYNN WOOLSEY: You know what? We’re in a new place right now with this e-mail, and I think there are questions people want answered. And I can say just for myself that supporting the NASA budget is going to depend on feeling absolutely sure that we’ve gotten real answers to those questions.
SEAN O’KEEFE: Absolutely. No, there’s no question. We really have to work through this and be responsive. We will be accountable.
TERENCE SMITH: O’Keefe said if the investigation showed a systemic problem with NASA’s chain of command and communication, the problem would be fixed.
TERENCE SMITH: For more about the shuttle investigation, I’m joined by Congressman Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York, a member of the House Science Committee that conducted today’s hearing. And by Lori Garver, former associate administrator for policy and plans at NASA; she is currently vice president of DFI International, an aerospace consulting firm in Washington. Welcome to you both. Lori Garver these are painful to read, these e-mails. You have read a lot of them and dealt with this in the past. What did you learn from these e-mails?
LORI GARVER: Well there is no question in my mind the people at NASA were doing all of the questions because they care more about the health of this crew and the vehicle than any of us, the space community is tight. These people are like family and it’s a good thing that they were investigating what they were.
TERENCE SMITH: And because they thought there was something wrong?
LORI GARVER: Well absolutely. When people review video and see that there could be a problem, I think it’s a positive measure that you had teams at different centers taking an active look at what could happen. I think if there are any questions and the investigation will undercover this, it’s in our modeling we didn’t determine in fact, that the problems were as severe as they ended up being.
TERENCE SMITH: Congressman Weiner, what questions about these e-mails pose you now want to get the answers to?
REP. ANTHONY WEINER: Well, I think when the accident happened, all of us had the same image in our mind of the “Challenger” blowing up and we immediately said, it’s the same thing all over again but policy makers and folks at NASA were saying, well, let’s hope this isn’t the same systemic problems that we found in 1986. You know, you put a headline up on the screen I’ll read another one “NASA officials unaware of pre-launch objections engineers strongly urged against flight” — that’s from the Washington Post, Feb. 20, 1986. There is an eerie similarity in the problems that have occurred in terms of information from people on the ground — the nuts and bolts scientists — getting to the brass at the top. And what concerns me most is not so much that they were back and forth and that there were some people in the industry and in the organization that had warned about these things; it’s that those warnings never reached the top.
Today O’Keefe said quite simply I’m satisfied they were dealt with at an operational level and my concern if that you’re the NASA administrator, you have nothing more important on your plate than that shuttle when it’s up orbit. And for these types of concerns as urgent as they were going back and forth not to reach a decision making level is most troubling.
TERENCE SMITH: Were you satisfied they were dealt with at the proper level?
REP. ANTHONY WEINER: Frankly I’m going to leave it to folks to decide why this accident happened and I think we’re going to get to the bottom of it. I’m very troubled that once again we’re getting to the bottom of it relying on reporters via Freedom of Information Act requests, notifying the administrator, which he admitted to to today. I can’t imagine in charge as a layman and he’s not a scientist either the moment the crash happens I don’t get my staff at the table and say I want to see every piece of information that might have had some insight into it and the idea that he was reading it in the paper with the rest of us just shows that we haven’t learned the lessons.
TERENCE SMITH: Lori Garver, there was one particular thing raised in these e-mails that I want to ask you about; the reference to the request to the U.S. Strategic Command to give close up pictures and surveillance of the left wing and that request was submitted and then withdrawn. Why? What’s -
LORI GARVER: Well, again , I really think NASA has been very clear that they did not believe that information would have helped them make a determination that would have caused anything to change. The very big difference here versus “Challenger” was all of those discussions before “Challenger” were whether to launch or not in the temperatures and whether the vehicle was safe. In this case the vehicle was already in orbit and there really wasn’t ultimately as Ron Dittimore and others have said not much we could have done any way but we still want to find out what happened and make sure NASA doesn’t have the systemic problem in the past but I argue it’s quite different than “Challenger.”
TERENCE SMITH: What about early why the flight however when it wasn’t in its maximum orbit when in theory could something have been done then, had those pictures been taken as described in the e-mails, could they have learned enough and done something?
LORI GARVER: In the future NASA maybe able to take more real-time data but they didn’t look at that video and see things until after they were already in orbit, after all that’s eight minutes and really to be able to calculate you would have a loss of crew and vehicle and do something that has never been done either turn to launch site or transatlantic abort is not a call that you’re really going to make based on the data they had.
REP. ANTHONY WEINER: What troubles me is I believe that that conclusion is what led them not to deal with the information fully. Their conclusion going in maybe at the upper reaches that there is nothing we can do so let’s not ask too many questions is not the way I want shuttle administrators or staffers looking at it. Today — USA Today O’Keefe was asked whether or not there was anything he could do. He harkened back to “Apollo 13,” he said, well, you know, we didn’t think we could get that down either. The fact is if you read the fine print of these e-mails going back and forth, it is some of the brightest minds in America trying to think about a way to save them if they did have to do some kind of a ditch.
What is still mind-boggling to me despite all the problems that NASA had in the past, they still seem to have no better way to get information to the top rung. So here we are, we’re talking about whether to increase their budget, lessen the budget and still we have the same exact problems in one important respect and that is decision makers at the top rung of the ladder are not getting information when it’s bad news. Are they getting information when it’s good news — perhaps. If you remember, the early comments about this flight was how flawless it had been throughout, it turned out that that was anything but the truth.
TERENCE SMITH: Is the congressman right, is there a problem of communication between the engineers who know the most and the management people who have to make the ultimate decisions?
LORI GARVER: I don’t think it’s clear yet that that’s what’s going on here. We did have a situation where a Langley group — a different center in Virginia was looking at information they think might happen if there was heating to that wheel well. The Johnson Space Center people because of their modeling decided there was no heating to the wheel well, so there was no need to transfer that information. Again too early to speculate on a lot of in this may or may not become something that was really critical to the investigation. I think looks like the focus may be somewhere else, which is does NASA know how to model this as far as damage as insulation off the tank. That may not even be ultimately what happened to the shuttle. It’s still probably too early to say.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet these e-mails, Congressman, were haunting in the way they so accurately predicted or discussed what did happen — what actually happened.
REP. ANTHONY WEINER: They were haunting even in the sequence that they said what to expect and at what altitude to expect it but the Rogers Commission when they looked at the stuff in 1986, one of the things they said there is too much of these decisions were made in isolation, that was pre e-mail. We’re going to find out what’s going to happen. I just hope the way we find out about it there truly is a sense at NASA that we’re going to be right up at the front of leading the charge to get this information out there. We’re not going to wait for reporters to pull it out of us; we’re not going to be defensive when congressmen ask about it; and we’re going to end this culture of isolation.
If I was the administration in NASA after what happened in 1986, I would have a complaint box on my desk; if you have any problems, any concern, however remote it might be, I don’t care if you’re someone sweeping up the commissary, if you have a suggestion, we want to be able to hear about it. Never again should we hear a NASA administrator sit before Congress on the eve of something like this and say, you know, I heard about this vigorous debate by reading it in the newspaper. That’s gut wrenching to someone who is so concerned about safety but we are going to find out what happened. I can say that with some certitude.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you agree that?
LORI GARVER: Sure and there is a suggestion box of course — and never made it in there, I’m sure. This was real time engineering data — people who care more about this than anyone trying to do the right thing and I think the free exchange was positive. We’ll find out if it should have gone higher up the chain.
TERENCE SMITH: And you do believe that we’ll come to a firm conclusion as to what caused this?
LORI GARVER: I do. I think the commission is already saying they’re finding that they believe they’ll pinpoint what happened.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay congressman Weiner, Lori Garver, thank you both very much.
REP. ANTHONY WEINER: Thank you.
LORI GARVER: Thank you.