The Columbia Report
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RAY SUAREZ: Some reaction to today’s report and a look at NASA’s future. Donna Shirley is the former manager of the Mars exploration program at NASA. She is president of Managing Creativity, a consulting firm. And Alex Roland served as a historian with NASA from 1973-1981. He teaches history at Duke University.
Donna Shirley, the report tried to assess and understand failures in a machine and failures in human systems. What do you think of the work they did?
DONNA SHIRLEY: I actually thought it was an excellent report. Certainly the parts that were in areas that I’m familiar with were right on for the most part. The chapter on the history of NASA’s culture, the way the shuttle was sold, the way the space station was sold, the impossible pressure that NASA has put itself under by overselling programs and over promising programs goaded on by the administration’s… several administrations and several congresses who basically that was the only, you know, they had to oversell it in order to get to proceed with the human space program.
All of that was completely accurate as far as I can tell. The technical parts of the report seemed to me to be very well done. Certainly Scott Hubbard’s work where he and his team blew a piece of foam through a simulated shuttle panel was completely convincing. So I think in all it was a very good report.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Roland, same question.
ALEX ROLAND: And pretty much the same answer. I agree with Donna Shirley. I think technically the report was done magnificently. It’s clearly written. It’s thorough. It’s based on evidence and it’s very hard hitting. I have some concerns with the parameters that the commission set for itself, that is, their explicit goal going in was to get the shuttle flying again.
And I think that’s an open question about whether it should be, and their conclusions coming out set up two different kinds of recommendations — one to get the shuttle flying again and one that they put under a category of keeping it flying. And it’s unclear how those second set of recommendations are going to be enforced.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talk about the recommendations. There’s 29 of them in all — some sort of near-term and have to do very much with the engineering of the spacecraft, and some of them longer term with the management systems and the checks and balances at NASA. What are your concerns about the recommendations as they’re set forth?
ALEX ROLAND: Well, as Admiral Gehman just said, there are troubling parallels with the Rogers Commission Report. And one of the things that we discovered after this accident was many of the recommendations made by the Rogers Commission either hadn’t been enacted at all by NASA or had been enacted and then allowed to erode over the years. And the reason for that is there was no independent oversight checking on them.
The Gehman Commission, as I read the report now quickly today does not recommend an independent external oversight mechanism to ensure that NASA really does what the commission is recommending. The commission simply says it’s the responsibility of the White House and Congress to oversee NASA. And what we’ve seen historically is that their attention span simply can’t stay with this sort of program. So I’m concerned about those long-term reforms that I think in some ways are more important because they’re the root cause of both accidents.
RAY SUAREZ: Ms. Shirley with the managerial fixes, the checks and balances that the Gehman Report recommends putting into place, do you agree with Professor Roland that that’s insufficient to the task and may set us up for a similar situation as with Challenger?
DONNA SHIRLEY: Well I agree with Professor Roland that the specific recommendation that they made, which was indeed to set up an independent reliability and safety inspection function, is insufficient. You have to… in order to have culture change at NASA, it’s going to be very difficult because what you have is very powerful centers scattered around the country with very powerful constituencies of congressional delegations and the industry that is around those centers. And they have a lot of clout with being able to influence the budget. And whether or not they are going to be tractable in terms of any changes that NASA headquarters would like to make is not clear.
Also, the… just the setting up of an independent review board or agency to, for instance, sign off on any changes that are proposed to be made, again, I don’t believe is sufficient because frankly the…those people will depend on the data they get. It’s a very complex system and if the data they get is somehow biased, by politics or by ego or whatever, they’re going to have a very hard time of it.
This was based on a military way of doing business, and I’m somewhat familiar with the way the air force operates where they have the — any changes that are made to a fleet of aircraft such as, say, the B-52 fleet, have to be only made and only paid for by a certain command that says, “okay, these are necessary to meet requirements. ” And the operational commands don’t get to go out there and just make some arbitrary changes mainly because they don’t have the budget. Whether that will work on a single item or whether there’s only three shuttles left in the NASA culture is not clear.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, professor, they had referred in the report to the problems that rose from having some of the same people be involved in decision-making around cost, scheduling and engineering and safety so that the tensions that might normally exist in a system between those different poles wasn’t there and they concluded that safety lost in those questions. Can you…. can you reengineer that system? Can you build a system that has the proper tension in there?
ALEX ROLAND: Well, that’s what gives me pause, that’s what gives me concern because the safety mechanism at NASA now was created by the Rogers Commission panel. But because it’s internal and because it’s subject to NASA control, it never had the autonomy and independence that the Rogers Commission desired for it. And it’s hard to see in the Gehman Commission recommendations where that autonomy and independence is going to come from. Clearly the safety mechanism, as the Gehman Commission says, has to be able to exercise a veto over operational decisions. That’s not true in NASA now and it’s difficult to see how it’s going to be true with any internal organization.
RAY SUAREZ: Donna Shirley, you’ve made several references as the report does to changing the culture at NASA. But while you can measure the scratches in a piece of tile or whether a piece of metal is fatigued or not after a certain number of missions, is it hard to measure whether a culture is being changed and whether habits and folk ways that grow up in an organization are being addressed over time?
DONNA SHIRLEY: Well, you can certainly… there are ways to measure it. For instance, the missions that I was most closely involved with were the Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor missions and the two ’98 missions on Mars that subsequently failed. And there was considerable culture change for Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor where they basically reduced cost by an order of magnitude. Now they also reduced science quite a bit in the case of Pathfinder. Mars Global Surveyor was able to do wonderful science because they had a bunch of leftover instruments from a previous mission.
But basically the formula is if you want to do more it’s going to cost more. And so NASA unfortunately has not been able to restrain its appetite in many cases and that’s what happened to the ’98 missions is that they were under funded and over required, too many instruments, too many constraints on them. And they ended up failing. So at least temporarily I think the robotics space program has learned a lesson and the two MER missions, the two Mars Exploration Rover missions on the way now were indeed very well funded although they had some real challenges in terms of schedule.
Mars Odyssey, which is currently operating, was well funded, relatively well funded because they canceled a Lander mission that was supposed to also launch in 2001. So NASA’s problem is not that it can’t do the job but that it doesn’t seem to be able to restrain its appetite. And this was another point that was made strongly in the Gehman Report is that NASA tries to do everything and just hopes somehow they’re going to get the resources to do it. And they’ve just never gotten the resources.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, quickly before we go, Harold Gehman referred to sort of setting the table, setting the stage for a national debate on the future of human space flight. Are the conditions right for that? Are we ready to have that kind of national debate?
ALEX ROLAND: I think we have to have it whether we’re ready or not. I think the Commission report is very strong on noting that since the end of the Apollo program we’ve continued to have a manned space flight program but no avowed, explicit national policy of why we’re sending people into space.
So we seem to have a popular consensus that we want to have a manned space flight program but we have no agreement on what it’s supposed to do. And clearly this is the time to have that debate.
RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you both.
DONNA SHIRLEY: You’re welcome.
ALEX ROLAND: You’re welcome.