TOPICS > Science

Newsmaker: Sean O’Keefe

August 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: On Tuesday, the official accident investigation board issued its report on what caused the shuttle Columbia to explode last February, killing all seven crew members. But the board went much further than technical problems to a very strong critique of NASA itself. “We are convinced,” the board wrote, “that the management practices overseeing the space shuttle program were as much a cause of the accident as the foam that struck the left wing.”

NASA’s administrator, Sean O’Keefe, joins us now to respond. Welcome.

SEAN O’KEEFE: All right, Jeffrey, thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you accept the charge that the Columbia disaster was caused by both technical and management failures?

SEAN O’KEEFE: Oh, indeed. This is a very thorough report, and our obligation at this stage I think, is to accept those findings and to comply with the recommendations, embrace this report and go about diligently implementing all those recommendations to improve it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how do you do that? How do you address specifically the human failures?

SEAN O’KEEFE: Indeed. I think you know, separating the hardware issues and how do you improve the Orbiter and how do you fix the leading edge and so forth, those are all technical engineering questions that are going to take time. The human did I mention of this is going to be a very difficult process set of questions.

We really have to change the institutional framework of the way we look at safety. We’ve always prided ourselves at being very concerned about safety and always diligent about it. We now have to reverse it the way the report says, to a question of prove to me that it’s safe, rather than having to prove that it’s not safe, and putting the burden of proof on those, all of us, to demonstrate that, yes, we know that this can fly and be accomplished with the risk mitigated and managed to as low a level as we possibly can. That’s a tall order and it’s something that we institutionally must embrace first and then put in the processes and proceed yours to encourage that mind set.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the report cites several what it called missed opportunities before and after launch that might have averted the disaster. And we have a quote here, it said that: “At every juncture … the shuttle program’s structure and processes, and therefore the managers in charge, resisted new information.” Why did that happen?

SEAN O’KEEFE: Well, it’s typically the case in every operation we engage in, that if we see an anomaly with frequency, that then that becomes explained and as an effort to look at it, we look at what the pattern of behavior has been, the pattern of incident has been, or damage or whatever else. If we’ve never seen an incident before, there’s a whole different reaction.

We grounded the shuttle fleet in June of 2002 through October as a consequence of finding a hairline fracture on a fuel line in the orbiter Atlantis, and the entire fleet shut down because we had never seen it before. But when there’s a repetitive visual of it so frequently and the new information that comes in about those instances where you’ve seen problems before — that’s where we convinced ourselves that we knew what we thought we knew without really demonstrating that we had a solution to those problems.

So there are some interesting contrasts in the way that our safety ethos and ethic has been manifest in this case. But it’s always driven by the best of intentions, and it just — this is a case where it was a habit and a process that broke down.

JEFFREY BROWN: But when the report cites culture, it sounds as though this is an institution where people are either afraid to speak up or don’t think they will be heard or there is a kind of hierarchy in which they don’t know who to speak to. Can you fix that?

SEAN O’KEEFE: Oh, absolutely. I think we’ve really — to the extent that that behavior, that attitude, exists anywhere throughout our agency, we really have to stop that because and the approach we’ve got to use is to encourage people that it’s all of our responsibility to step up when we think something is not exactly the right way, but also to have a forum and an opportunity to enjoin that to everyone’s understanding of why we would proceed thereafter once we know the facts.

The second part, though, also says we have to really be firm about assuring that people are not strangling that kind of dialogue and debate that goes on and assured that doesn’t occur. So we’ve got to cover it on both ends. We can’t just expect everybody to step up when the environment’s not proper for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, a larger concern, a larger context that the board cites, that over time, NASA seems to have focused more on budgets and schedules, deadlines, than on safety. That’s the suggestion here. And it cites specifically the international space station, the attempt to complete that, force the scheduling of launching the shuttle, what it called “an ever more compressed schedule.” It said that you yourself had imposed some of the deadlines, and it said that NASA employees felt “under the gun.” Your response to that?

SEAN O’KEEFE: Well, there’s no question, the findings of the board are fact. We’re not going to contest the fact. We’ve gone through the investigation over the course of these last seven months, and by definition, it’s not an assertion, it’s a fact. They if they found it, that’s what it is, and you know, the debate for that is over.

The point they’re raising, I think, that is in concert with the piece that you selected from the report itself is that they also observed that schedules and milestones and all that is part of every management practice. It’s part of everyday life. We all live by some schedule, all live by some set of deadlines. We all set goals and milestones and objectives. And their point was, that to the extent that there was any effort in the direct comment and the direct comment they made was that, if it had begun to influence the view of program managers that there was compression in the schedule over the safety objectives, that’s where the danger signals should have gone on and checks and balances should have been in place in order to assure that not be the case.

So what we really have to be mindful of and watch for is you always using what our normal management practices in every day of life, which is schedules and the calendar and things and events, milestones, always will drive our behavior in one way, shape or form. But assure that everybody understand what those schedules are driven by, what our understanding is and whether they’re achievable.

And the fact is in my tenure, a year plus, we have never had a single launch that ever launched on the date it was actually scheduled to go. We always have had an ethos and an attitude and a view, a value that says if there’s something not right, then you delay it until you’ve rectified that problem. And every flight I’ve ever been witness to and on my watch has always been delayed as a consequence of something. None of them ever launched exactly the type. We both demonstrated a flexibility to accommodate to those kind of anomalies, but also, we haven’t, according to the board, and the way the fact is that they’ve defined it, been as effective in communicating the purposes by which those schedules are set.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you said yesterday that you are personally accountable —

SEAN O’KEEFE: I am indeed.

JEFFREY BROWN: — for what happened. Have you or are you considering resigning?

SEAN O’KEEFE: I serve at the pleasure of serving the President of the United States. And at any point that he determines in his judgment that that is no longer appropriate, I am certainly prepared to leave at his call. So that’s never a question in my mind. I’m an appointee and I understand that parameter.

JEFFREY BROWN: I understand that you talked to Vice President Cheney, too.


JEFFREY BROWN: Did you talk to him or the president or anyone else about resigning?

SEAN O’KEEFE: Again, at any point the president seeks that position, I’m perfectly happy to do whatever his judgment renders. And I trust his judgment in that regard.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as we sit here now do you have a time schedule for when you think the shuttle might fly?

SEAN O’KEEFE: I think — we will fly when we are fit to fly. I think we’ve really got to comply with these recommendations. We have we have to accept these findings. We must embrace this report and implement this to the best of our ability. And whatever period of time that’s going to take, we’re going to have to measure that progressively and determine how it’s going to work. The hardware corrections that are necessary would tell you that the kinds of things offered by the chairman of the Columbia accident investigation board, the view that he’s expressed is that there’s nothing that can stand in the way, from a hardware standpoint, of making these corrections within sometime after the new year.

That said, I’m not confident that all of the management changes and the process changes and the systemic adjustments that they’ve called for in their recommendations, that is going to take whatever period of time it takes to raise the bar for ourselves higher than what wee see in this report and assure ourselves that we are fit to fly before we do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’ll see what happens. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, thank you for joining us.

SEAN O’KEEFE: Thank you, Jeffrey. I appreciate it.