NASA’s Return to Flight
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SPENCER MICHELS: For two-and-a-half years, astronauts have been training, scientists have been trying to make the space shuttle safer and management has been working on better communication, all in preparation for the shuttle’s return to orbit, now set for Wednesday.
ANNOUNCER: Three, two, one. We have booster ignition, and liftoff of space shuttle Columbia.
SPENCER MICHELS: When Columbia burned up over Texas on reentry from space in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts, NASA began a process of reassessment and risk reduction that even now is not complete.
The accident is rarely off the minds of members of the 2005 Discovery shuttle crew, like Californian Steve Robinson, who has logged nearly 500 hours in space.
STEVE ROBINSON: We’re going to take a day, and we will say a few things down to Earth for the world to hear about what we’re thinking about — the crew — and on a more personal side that you might not really hear very many details. But I guess really the most important thing is that they’re going to be in our hearts and minds the whole time.
SPENCER MICHELS: Since Columbia was destroyed when insulation foam broke loose from the fuel tank and knocked a hole in the orbiter’s wing, NASA has focused on the problem of debris.
A major goal: preventing the foam from shedding and damaging the thousands of delicate heat-insulating tiles on liftoff. The fuel tank’s complicated shape makes it hard to keep the foam in place or to predict what might happen if it breaks off. Wayne Hale, the shuttle’s deputy program manager, says improved foam has been developed.
WAYNE HALE: Foam is not a really good structural material. It’s a good insulating material, but understanding how it adheres to metals and how internally this material holds together is a difficult problem. So we have spent nearly two years improving all those processes.
And we are ready to prove, in an engineeringly rigorous way, that we will not lose large pieces of foam. There is still a possibility we may lose small pieces of foam, because that’s inherent in the nature of this insulation material.
SPENCER MICHELS: NASA has performed many tests, shooting foam at high speeds into wing panels and tiles to see what happens. The launch will be monitored by high-definition video cameras to help spot any damage that does occur.
When the orbiter reaches the space station — its goal — astronauts will unpack a new, extra-long boom arm with a camera and a laser inspection device to inspect the wings’ leading edges and, if necessary, every tile. Astronauts will experiment with new techniques to repair damaged tiles in space. The crew has tried tile repair in weightless conditions aboard a special NASA aircraft, but no one is sure if it will work in space.
DANA WEIGEL: You can see here that the material is very sticky.
SPENCER MICHELS: As NASA’s engineer Dana Weigel demonstrated, the repair techniques are complicated, even if they look low-tech.
DANA WEIGEL: Now the material here is self-leveling, because it’s a 1-G environment. What we have to on orbit in a zero gravity environment to get this shape the way we want it is usually foam tools, which don’t stick to it. And you can see we can push the material around and make a nice, level, smooth surface.
SPENCER MICHELS: If the shuttle is seriously damaged by foam or otherwise, NASA plans to move the astronauts into the space station, while another shuttle, the Atlantis, is sent up to rescue them.
SPENCER MICHELS: The problems with foam prompted NASA to look at another debris problem that hasn’t disrupted any flights yet. That problem, says Deputy Director Hale, is ice.
WAYNE HALE: The risk with ice is that, obviously, if you’ve handled ice cubes or seen icicles in the wintertime, you know it’s very hard and it can be very heavy. We had thought that ice would fall away right at lunch and fall away from the space shuttle orbiter, where the delicate thermal protection tiles are. What we found was that ice could hold on and actually fall off when you’re at high speed and pose a risk to the orbiter.
SPENCER MICHELS: NASA engineer and technical overseer Paul Shack has looked at the ice studies.
PAUL SHACK: We don’t know how it comes off, whether it comes off in lots of little pieces, whether it comes off in a mix of little pieces and big pieces, or whether it comes off in big pieces. And we also don’t know when it comes off. Some comes of at liftoff. Some comes off during ascent. It’s just very unpredictable.
SPENCER MICHELS: In more than 100 missions, no spacecraft has been seriously damaged by ice, but Hale says such data are not convincing.
WAYNE HALE: They show that we’ve been lucky rather than smart, and in this business, you cannot afford to rely on luck.
SPENCER MICHELS: Early in May, NASA decided to roll the shuttle back from the launch pad and install heaters in critical places on the fuel tank to prevent ice from forming. That set the timetable for flight back two months.
But too often, says former astronaut Jim Wetherbee, NASA is reluctant to delay flights. Wetherbee, who was commander of five shuttle missions, resigned a few months ago, charging that NASA has not fixed its broken safety culture, an inability to recognize and react to problems.
JIM WETHERBEE: We must master the ability to make decisions as best we can without having schedule pressure affect the decision. We do want to accomplish missions. It’s written in our genes to explore.
But we don’t have to explore on Tuesday. We can explore on Saturday. We’re not in a race. If you back off on the schedule pressure, treat the people well, give them the proper tools, encourage them to question, you’ll actually accomplish missions faster.
SPENCER MICHELS: Changing NASA’s culture and getting managers to listen to safety concerns of subordinates was a major recommendation by the board that investigated the Columbia accident. That culture, the board said, contributed to the accident.
Howard McCurdy is an historian who has studied the internal workings of the U.S. Space Agency.
HOWARD McCURDY: NASA’s difficulty in communication was not that people weren’t speaking up. They were. People issued warnings before the Challenger accident. They issued warnings during the flight of Columbia.
The difficulty was on the other end — that people in the mission management teams weren’t listening — or, more appropriately, they weren’t interpreting what they were hearing in the correct way.
SPENCER MICHELS: The trick, says McCurdy, is paying attention to the important e-mails and phone calls from scientists and technicians, and ignoring what he calls “noise.”
HOWARD McCURDY: It’s noise that’s not going to affect the outcome of the flight. But some of the signals are real, and they require the attention of management. Sorting out the signal from the noise is the most difficult process that people on mission management teams face when a space flight is under way.
WOMAN: What I wanted to ask you guys about today was your impression about how the culture change effort has been going on.
SPENCER MICHELS: In response to concerns about culture, NASA brought in an outside management firm to recommend changes in the way the agency did things.
NASA also deputized a group of senior engineers, including Paul Shack, to intervene with higher authority whenever anyone felt his or her point of view had been ignored.
SPENCER MICHELS: Do you get a lot of people coming to you with complaints or whatever?
PAUL SHACK: Yes. I’ve had people come into my office and say, “You’re the independent technical authority. Here’s something you ought to know.”
SPENCER MICHELS: Hale thinks the culture change is working.
Is it already in practice? Can you see it happening around the organization, or is it something everybody says, “Yeah, okay, we’re going to do that,” but then they…
WAYNE HALE: No. I really see it in operation now. It seems like that I get lots of e-mails. I get lots of folks standing up in meetings, saying, “What about this? Let’s talk about that. Let’s make sure we get the right data. Here’s our concerns.” So there is a lot more of that going on than frankly there was before the accident.
SPENCER MICHELS: An independent task force has been monitoring the shuttle return to flight to ensure the agency meets all the recommendations of the accident investigation board.
Recently, the task force said NASA had failed to meet three out of 15 goals, including long-term improvements to thermal shielding and fixing tiles in space. Yet the group said NASA came close in those three cases, and so the shuttle shouldn’t be prevented from flying. Former astronaut Richard Covey was co-chair.
Getting a failing grade on one out of five, that isn’t such a great record, but you’re saying it’s okay?
RICHARD COVEY: I didn’t say they had a failing grade.
SPENCER MICHELS: You didn’t?
RICHARD COVEY: No, I didn’t. You know, is 95 a failing grade? Is 99 a failing grade?
What we said was that the agency had not completely met our interpretation of the intent of the accident investigation board in three areas, but they had accomplished a whole lot in those areas, and as collectively when you look at them, what has been accomplished, should not preclude the space shuttle from flying safely.
SPENCER MICHELS: As a former astronaut, would you be comfortable flying with the risks, especially from debris, that you see in your report?
RICHARD COVEY: Based upon what I know, relative to foam in particular, and the assessments that they have made, I would worry about other things now, not foam coming off and damaging the orbiter. I’d worry about those things that we have traditionally worried about that are risky in space flight.
SPENCER MICHELS: Covey named other shuttle parts that NASA normally checks out closely, including the main engines, the solid rocket boosters, the machinery. The agency believes it understands and accepts such risks.
Yet even with the new precautions, the shuttle remains far riskier than a routine airplane flight. Its commander, Eileen Collins, thinks those risks are acceptable.
EILEEN COLLINS: There is risk in space flight, and we know that, and there’s unknown risks. But we are willing to go fly this mission with what we know. We need to get the shuttle back flying, and we need to get the space station built.
SPENCER MICHELS: If the Discovery mission is a success, the astronauts will resume the process of building the space station that was suspended when the Columbia was lost two and a half years ago, and NASA will continue to plan for manned trips to the moon and Mars.
JIM LEHRER: Late today one of the window covers on the Discovery shuttle fell and struck a thermal tile near the tail. NASA’s launch manager said the damaged tile will be replaced tonight; she said it should not delay the launch.