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February 18, 2003
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Columbia Accident Investigation Board Press Briefing
February 18, 2003


STAFF: OK. And good afternoon and welcome to this, our second formal press conference for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. We're hoping that we'll be doing this weekly, probably every Tuesday at about this time. So, we'll plan on making that a regular thing as much as the board schedule will permit.

We have with us today Admiral Hal Gehman, who is the chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and three additional members of the board who Admiral Gehman will introduce in just a moment, who are representatives of the various teams that the board is divided into. And then we'll have a few things for you at the end. Our question-and-answer period today is a little bit fragmented. The folks in Washington are not able to get into headquarters for questions. So we're going to be having a couple people patched in by phone. And we'll be a little bit disjoined when we get to Q&A, but we'll manage to get through it at some point here.

I'd like to turn it over now to Admiral Gehman.

GEHMAN: OK. Good afternoon, everybody. What I'd like to do is make an opening statement which recounts the board's activities for the week, and some of our description of where we are, and introduce my three members here, and then each of them will make a short statement summarizing what their groups are working on, and we'll take your questions.

First of all, Major General John Barry, to my right, is from the group that's looking at material and management issues. Mr. Steve Wallace, next over, from the FAA is looking at operations and crew issues. And Dr. Jim Hallock, from the Department of Transportation, is in a group that's looking at engineering and technical analysis. And we'll get back to them in just a second. And they have some comments to make. And when they're finished, we'll open up the questions.

As many of you are aware, during the last week, was when we met with literally hundreds of NASA people at Houston, Johnson, Marshall and the Michoud assembly facility, we released information as it became available. So I don't have a storehouse of new information that I've stored up for a week to give to you. We release interesting things as we come across them, so I don't have any particular opening announcements to make.

As items came up during the week, having to do with heat analysis, photographs that might be interesting, the addition of an additional member of the board, we released these things as they came up.

We are moving to fulfill our mission of expeditiously and completely and carefully to find the cause of the Columbian accident. And we have taken a number of steps to move that process along. In addition to finding the cause of the accident, we, of course, are going to look at every conceivable contributing cause, and that includes budgetary matters, management issues, the work force issues, safety and mission insurance, and anything else that we think could possibly have contributed to this accident. A couple of (inaudible) for our week's activities. As you are aware, we added a tenth member to the board, Dr. Sheila Widnall, from MIT, who is an aerodynamicist. She will bring a much valued expertise in the area of high-speed aerodynamics, and will assist us in determining the direction that we should pursue.

We continue to replace our NASA startup staff with non-NASA employees. They are coming on board as the travel situation allows it. For example, my good friend here to my left will be replaced by a non-NASA press office this week.

We have announced that we've opened a Washington, D.C., office, mostly for the convenience of the oversight committees, so they can send us queries and questions, and we can respond to them quickly. It's going to be headed by a Mr. Tom Carter, and his bio and background will be in the press release.

We have tentatively set our first public hearing, tentatively scheduled for next Thursday– a week from Thursday at a time and place not yet determined. We've got a little bit of logistics to work out yet, but the nature of the public hearing will be divided into two parts. The first part will be for hear from witnesses that we call to essentially read matters into the record. That is, if there are substantive or factual matters that have come before the board and we want to publicly disclose them as the process goes on, we'll do that in a public forum under the process of a public hearing.

The second matter that will happen in the public hearing will be we will invite experts who are not associated with any U.S. government program, who have theories or hypotheses, who have written to us or provided papers or research documents, to come and express to us their opinions. So that way we get input not via any process, or not by any government agency.

And that will be essentially the procedure in all our public hearings. We will work our way through a series of witnesses, where we will make public matters of the investigation. And we will also allow individuals who have an interest and who are credible experts to testify.

We are continuing our work on providing a direct way to communicate with the board directly. We've established a mailing address, which will be shown at the end of this press conference. We are establishing a 1-800 number with a recording on it. And we are in the process of developing a Web site, so that anybody who wants to communicate directly with the board, not via NASA, can do that.

And we are also continuing and maturing the process of the board mapping its own investigatory processes. There were several questions during the week of whether or not we're following the famous fault tree system that NASA uses.

GEHMAN: Yes, we're following it, because that's the way NASA's constructing their investigation. But we continue to develop our own road map, and that road map, of course, will mature and morph continuously as we get smarter.

Lastly, last week the board talked with literally hundreds of NASA and contractor employees at several of the major centers that we visited. This trip was for education and orientation. The board was furiously writing notes that we have spent this week following up on. We were impressed by the dedication, seriousness of all of the people that we came in contact with. It was extraordinarily fruitful and gave us tons of things to follow up on.

As we speak, members of the board or board staff have already or are now fanning out across the country. And later in the week that will continue as principals, board members either go back to Kennedy or go back to Marshall or go to other places. And the pace of this investigation is now accelerating rapidly, because instead of having one entity, the board, going around doing things, we're now multiplying ourselves by 12 or 15 times. So the pace is picking up considerably.

We still need debris. Debris collection is extraordinarily important to us. We expect that in the debris collection process that there's evidence out there. As in most accident investigations, the evidence that is derived and the conclusions that are derived from the debris come kind of late, they come later, and that's probably going to be the case this time, too. But we need that debris.

The board is extremely grateful to the many, many volunteers, law enforcement agencies, public agencies that continue to comb the areas of East Texas, Central Texas and Louisiana and picking up debris.

I don't have the numbers at my fingertips, but maybe I ought to. We have about 4,000 pieces of debris now at Kennedy. I'll get you the exact numbers, but something like 2,600 of them are actually identified, catalogued and out on the floor. And the other 1,400 or 1,500 are in the process of being safed and identified and being placed on the reconstruction floor. There are about 10,000 pieces that are in the pipeline headed toward Barksdale or Kennedy.

And so I would ask everybody to please continue to be observant looking for shuttle debris and follow the procedures that have been established for turning that debris in. So I think that we are well on the way to meeting the goals of this commission to have a broad and thorough investigation, independent, and at a pace that will satisfy the requirements of the concern we have for our three astronauts on orbit and at the same time getting to the bottom of this.

So I will now turn to my colleagues here on the right. Each one of them will describe the sub-board that they are members of and give you a sampler–not the complete list, but a sampler of the things they're working on. We thought you would be interested to know what lines of investigation they are working on, and they'll give you, kind of, a taste of it, and then we'll be ready for your questions.

So Major General John Barry will be first, who is from the group that we roughly call the material and management group.

BARRY: Thank you, Admiral.

As the admiral has said many times, as the board members have mentioned, our hearts and our prayers go out to the families of the Columbia crew and we salute them for being bold and courageous. So that's uppermost in our minds as we work our way through this. We also have a pledge, and to reemphasize what the admiral said, is the pledge is a wide and thorough and diligent investigation that is being done by independent professionals. So the goal in all of this is that never to happen again to such great pioneers, their families or the nation.

Now, before I begin outlining what our group is doing, I'd like to just mention that our near-term objective right now is to identify factors leading up to the accident. Now, we're not ready for any findings or recommendations or causes, but we are trying to work through it in a systematic manner to eliminate the non-factors that are not contributory, as we work through that.

So besides looking at the left wing, of course, everybody is focused on that to some extent, we have a responsibility to look at the problem areas that could be from within the orbiter, on the orbiter or outside the orbiter that caused the catastrophe. And we will systematically peel back all the areas that could be factors and those that we rule out as non-factors. So please keep that in mind as we work our way through this.

Now, group one is made up, beside myself, Rear Admiral Steve Turcotte and Brigadier General Duane Deal. Our plans right now are to get back on the road here this weekend. We will be visiting Morton Thiokol in Utah; Palmdale, California, we will be visiting KSC; and then eventually make our way back to Marshall. So we're going back to a lot of the places that we have already visited and to dig deeper as we go through it.

Now, to outline what the responsibilities for our group is, as the admiral said, it's maintenance, materials and management.

BARRY: So let me go through briefly some items that we're taking a look at.

Before I do that, it's also worthwhile mentioning that the responsibility that I'm going to outline right now are being looked at. But as a reminder, insofar as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is concerned, we're open to all inquiries.

But here is an example of some of the things that we're looking at.

First of all, I'm going to talk about maintenance and material. We describe that briefly as assessing the shuttle system preparation and processing from landing, when the orbiter landed from the last mission just prior to launch.

We're going to trace all those anomalies that were listed back to maintenance material work. And as we do that, we are clearly working on the left wing to some extent. So we're concentrating on foam and tiles and the leading edge or the RCC, orbital debris and the landing gear.

We are also taking a look, as you would imagine, at the external tank, the RSRMs, the solid rocket boosters and the testing that went on for that and then the full integration of the system. So when you put it all together, of course, that's when you get the orbiter and we have the space transportation system.

So what three specific areas are we looking in this regard? We are looking clearly at aging spacecraft in an environment of research and development. That's going to be key, as we work through some of these aspects of our part in the investigation.

The second thing we're looking for maintenance, is orbiter, the major modifications commonly noted as OMM, as it was transferred from Palmdale to KSC.

And then third thing we'll be looking at in the immediate future is the vendor closing and NASA assumption of commodities and materials responsibilities as we move more toward NASA assuming as the vendors start going away.

So those are just three areas. And again, I caution you, we're not making any assumptions of whether that's being done well or not being done well. But we have a responsibility to start peeling away the maintenance elements of this.

In regards to management, we define that as management decisions on the space shuttle program. Now, management will be looked at in the initial shot at it in three major areas. We're going to look at government oversight in an era of out-sourcing the contractors. We're going to take a look at NASA contractor management transfer that was done from California to the Johnson Space Center. And then the quality assurance adjustments in an increasing contractor environment. So that gives you some idea of what we'll be focusing on for the immediate future in regards to that.

So again, let me just comment that our commitment is that we will get to the bottom of this accident. And I look forward to your questions.

GEHMAN: Thank you very much.

Steve Wallace from the group that's looking at operations and...

WALLACE: Well, we all, of course, echo the commitment of Admiral Gehman and General Barry that this will be an absolutely wide-open investigation. And starting out with the rule one, again, everything is on the table.

Our group is operations training and life sciences. I would like to point out that none of us think that the boundaries between our groups are black and white. They are flexible. They will change over time. And there will be several areas of overlap.

The other board member in the group is Major General Ken Hess, who is the commander of the United States Air Force Safety Center. We also have a physician and former astronaut who is assisting us. He is no longer with NASA. And we have a substantial staff of investigators and support people, and we are growing.

The focus of our group is on the processes that lead up to the flight readiness review, the certification of flight readiness, all of the decision processes that lead up to the launch, focusing on safety and risk assessments and all of the related processes and organizational issues.

And this is where we would be overlapping–and as a management part of the decision process, we would be overlapping with General Barry's group.

I will say that, for the moment, our group is doing a lot of the methodical removing things from the table. We are not focused on what, or sort of have been identified as the likely cause areas for the accident in the media and in the investigation in general, but we're looking at everything leading up to the launch decision.

I would note, for example, training and certification of the flight crew, of the ground controllers, everyone involved with the operation. Frankly, we have no reason to think we're going to find anything out of the ordinary in that area, but it's just routine in any accident investigation that you look at all of the training and those factors.

Payloads would be another area that our group is looking at. This mission, STS-107, carried 32 separate payloads with 59 different experiments all highly scientific, very diverse group of experiments. We are, again, have no reason to believe that any of those payloads were a factor, but we will thoroughly, methodically examine each one.

I would add, we will be largely focused here at the Johnson Space Center initially. We will be moving–we'll be traveling to other facilities, as we already have as a group, but individually we will be traveling to other facilities as the investigation leads us.

And I would again echo the commitment and confidence of General Barry to get to the bottom of this.

Thank you.

GEHMAN: Thank you very much.

And Dr. Jim Hallock from the Department of Transportation.

HALLOCK: Good afternoon. I'm here representing the group that deals with the technology and the engineering evaluation.

Basically, though, what our emphasis is on is the accident itself, the time from when the launch occurred until the time when debris has now hit the ground. The previous speakers are leading up to all–all the circumstances leading up to that part of it, and, as I say, we deal with those two week period of what was happening.

We overlap, obviously, and when we start looking at such things as foam issues or tiles or so on, obviously some of the first questions we come across are, you know, what's the history of this particular thing and what other things have happened at the time.

HALLOCK: The group I'm representing here today consists of Scott Hubbard, Roger Tetrault and a new member that Admiral Gehman mentioned, and that is Professor Sheila Widnall who will be joining us later this week.

We have lots of things to look at and there's lots of paths going on. In one sense, we're a little behind things because we do need to allow NASA and all of those people out there looking for pieces to have a chance to find as much of the debris as possible, because these are things that really tell us what's going on.

We are spending time, however, learning about the environment. I mean, frankly, the accident investigations that I have been involved with have been aircraft and they all deal with things that happen within probably the first thousand feet of altitude. Now, we're talking about something that's 200,000 feet above.

So we need to understand what is that environment about? What is the whole issue of what's happening when you have this super-heated air striking materials? And we need to know that for a couple of reasons. One, we want to know what does it do under normal conditions. And then, second, when we do look at some of this debris, we want to extract back, you know, here's something that would normally happen versus here's something that may have happened due to some other event occurring. So we need to be able to distinguish the difference.

One thing we are doing, though, is, we've adopted a systems approach to everything. In other words, what we're looking at, we're not saying, ``OK, we're interested in this one tile that's sitting here.'' We're interested in that tile, the adhesive, the aluminum substructure and how all of those things fit into a whole.

And so it's a little more intensive, in the sense that we now have to look at what are the various characteristics of all of these things and how they would be affected not only by that the super-heated air environment it's in, but also what would happen once it now is descending in a more ballistic-type format toward the ground.

We're looking at the obvious things that I'm sure would come as no surprise. We're very much interested in the main landing gear well area. We're looking at scenarios of how can you get heating.

But we also have to look at the other part if indeed that turns out to be something that's very important, which it sounds like it is, we then now have to go in the opposite direction, and that is, work backwards, OK? If that is a very appropriate scenario, then, well, how did it happen? So you have to work back. Was that due to a tile issue or was that due to a problem with the reinforced carbon-carbon on the leading edge of the wing or so on? And then again, we have to back up even further. Now if that's where it came from, what was the event that may have lead to that? Was it a micro-meteorite or, you know, crash with space junk that's been floating all around the Earth or right back to the issue about the foam that we talked about?

We're looking not only at things like the foam, because we're also trying to expand it. Obviously, we talk about foam because of the–I'm sure you've all seen the film clippage showing something happening, but the question is still in everyone's mind to make sure that was foam. Was it the foam or was it the ablative material that's behind the foam? There's metal behind the foam. Or was it ice? There are all these things that are still things that we need to at least put a check mark at yes, we've looked at it and yes or no it is a possibility or not.

We're very much interested also in the landing gear door itself. Because, once again, you have tiles all around the area, but you also have seals. And there's another way that you could probably have something–the super-heated air, have a chance to get into the aircraft itself.

But we need to look at the whole substructure. We're interested in the leading edge and its subsystems structure. How is it tied together? How is it bolted onto the vehicle itself and so on?

As part of looking at these various things, as I say, we're also interested as to say could there have been a space junk, as I said before, type of thing. Which means we need to understand what is the environment out there. What's going on?

The whole area, as I say, is complex because there are so many different things. And we can't just emphasize and look in one and only one area. It's the whole flight that's going on.

There are issues that we need to look at. Some of you have heard of the fact that on the second day there was something moving away from the craft itself. Well, what was that? Was the bay door open and maybe this was just something floating out or was it something that would be connected to the ultimate event, that is the accident itself? So we're cutting across many, many different things that we have many, many probes going on at the time.

In terms of the materials, for example, we have one of our support personnel out at Cape Kennedy at this time taking a lot of detailed photographs of some of the items so we can begin to look at it.

We're looking for certain telltales. For example, if it–you know, if there really was superheating, then you should probably find issues of small droplets of metal. I mean, if you're talking about having this super-heated air getting in there–remember, this is quite high temperatures and aluminum, I believe, melts at approximately 1,000 degrees, and we're talking about super-heated air that's much hotter than that. So if it, indeed, is a culprit, one of the things you look for is a spray of aluminum, droplets, let's say, on something. So these are all things that are clues or can be clues to what's going on.

HALLOCK: And it's going to take a while, because there's not a lot of things. Yes, there are a number of items. As we heard, there's roughly 4,000. I believe the number I saw was 3,656 pieces. But some of these pieces are, you know, very small, very small types of pieces, and it's hard to determine much from it until you can put it within its context. It's much more useful to us when we have a larger piece where you can see different things happening along the piece itself, in the sense of is there ablated material, did it burn off, and so on.

So, as I say, we have a long task ahead of us, and it's going to take a while because, as I say, we need to wait and examine all the material we have now, but also look at some things that we hope other people will find in the near future.

Thank you.

GEHMAN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

I'll just close this segment, and we'll turn it over to questions here.

My job is to coordinate among all these individual investigations and cross-level all these individual investigations that are going on, but also I have the job of putting this accident in context. By that I mean this accident happened in the context of the manned space flight program, it happened in context of reviews that have happened in the last couple of years, it happened in the context of reports and studies that were done, it's in the context of the Challenger accident and what has been learned since then.

Our report will not be an individual random data point on a graph. Our report will place this event in the context of our space exploration quest and attempt to put it in its rightful place.

With that, we are ready to take questions.

QUESTION: I assume at this point you've probably heard of or seen a lot of the radar hits, especially out West, and may be able to follow the trajectory down. Does that give you any idea yet where the shuttle first may have begun shedding a part or more than one pieces?

GEHMAN: Let Dr. Hallock take the first shot at that, since he's in this technical evaluation team.

HALLOCK: Yes, we have been poring over the films. There's no question it's very important. From the timing that I've seen right now, it does look like things were beginning to come from the shuttle as it approached or right about California. So it's not something that was close in. It began way out about in that area.

People are looking at the pieces. We're trying to get a sense by looking at them where we have these films and trying to extract from it what we think the mass would be and then how it's moving. And in fact some people right here at Johnson that are using them and trying to extrapolate that to the point of where it may land, so that we can pick some places and try to find it.

Obviously, it'll be very important to understand what those pieces are, particularly the ones that started falling off at the very beginning.

(UNKNOWN): I might add, to piggyback on Jim's comments, that first of all, there's a ton of work left to be done in this area, and we are just at the beginning of this analytical work. And the analytical work is exactly as Dr. Hallock describes it.

The second point I would make is that we are still receiving information from private citizens and from the U.S. government. And so keep it coming is what I got to say.

QUESTION: As the weeks and months of this investigation proceed, referring to your comment, Admiral, that you must be this accident in a context, as you begin to develop possible or probable scenarios, how much work are you going to do in evaluating what those possible scenarios are the fault, how serious it is with regard to the whole shuttle transportation system; that is, what the fault actually means, whether you're talking about a fundamental design problem, and if so, what to do about it?

GEHMAN: It's hard for me to answer that question because I don't know what conclusions we're going to reach. But we will go further than just identifying the direct cause, if there is one, of this accident. We will probe to find out, how did that happen? Where were the checks and balances that were supposed to be put in place? What was the culture? Was it driven by budgets? Was it driven by management imperatives? So it doesn't make any difference whether we find a direct cause–that is, this bracket broke or something like that–or whether it is a number of contributing causes. We will attempt to put that in the context of our manned space program and in the context of NASA as we find it today.

It is our desire, it is our goal as a board that no matter what we find here, that the report that we write will be deep enough and rich enough that it will be the foundation for a good intellectual debate about what we do next.

We are setting a relatively high technical and intellectual bar for ourselves. So while we are energetically pursuing all of these avenues approach that we have mentioned–and others, by the way; we didn't give you the whole catalogue–but we also are positioning ourselves to be able to have this be the basis upon which the country can have a good debate.

QUESTION: I'm wondering, you were very swift last week in coming up with the statement involving the breach–the supposed breach in the left wing, and I'm wondering if some of you can address the preliminary analysis into that? What it's leading to you to suspect in what part of the wing might have been vulnerable, and what may have caused it?

GEHMAN: I'll ask Dr. Hallock to comment on that again, please.

HALLOCK: The whole idea of breach really comes about by trying to turn this situation around the other way, and that is how can you get some of the events happening that we saw, that is where you started seeing temperatures rising in different areas, and then a number of sensors suddenly going off–I believe they use the term off-scale low–which to me means something like the wire that it was connected to was no longer there. And when you look at how the wires are set up within the craft itself and so on, it leads you directly toward the wheel well; there's no question. The wires that lead to those sensors that we're talking about go right in front of the wheel well and back.

Then when you look at where the temperature sensors are and you get a sense of how they're reading it gives you, you can almost triangulate. In fact, that's what you're trying to do, you see this one temperature here and this one's a little bit higher, well, then that means you're probably closer to the source type of thing.

And so you're trying to look at possible ways of doing it, and that's why I said, what we're looking at is scenarios, you know. If it was, indeed, caused by this, where would we see it occurring? And then from there try to do those next steps that I said, OK, if it's there did it come from the leading edge area or did it come through the, say, the seals on the door itself, and so on?

So, there are a number of those things you look at, but it's as you say, a lot of it came about as, it's one way to try to explain the situation as we saw it.

QUESTION: Admiral, two-part question, if I may. First of all, you spoke just now of your desire, your ambition to have a process that would result in a report that would be intellectually challenging, and I'm wondering if that challenge would include posing the very basic questions to yourself and coming up with a recommendation on perhaps the most fundamental question as to whether or not there should be any continuation of the manned space program, the shuttle program, per se?

And second part is, you've mentioned that there is rather large number–several thousand, 3,000, I forget the exact number–of pieces of debris found so far. Can you give us idea, even if it's a rough guesstimate, of what percentage of the shuttle, physically, has been accumulated thus far, and what parts it represents and what parts that debris does not represent?

GEHMAN: The board has not yet established the outer limits of our investigation except in the areas that I have already mentioned to you. I would guess that the answer to the questions that you ask are up to the administration and the Congress, that is the future of manned space flight and all that sort of stuff, and that we would hope that our product would aid–would be the basis of how that discussion would take place.

We would, for example, frame the costs and risks and fixes necessary, and then it would be up to the Congress and the administration to decide whether or not they could bear that cost.

As far as the debris at Kennedy, it's from all parts of the orbiter. I think perhaps the one that was speculated on the earliest was the, there's a main landing gear strut, if I have that correctly, and the big question, was it left or right landing gear, because we're really interested in the left wheel well.

And we have been–we have authorized the investigation team at Kennedy to take that landing gear strut apart, kind of, one little piece at a time, because we are concerned with the destruction of evidence, and thus far we have not been able to determine whether it's left or right. But we will. We will.

Other than that I would say that of the–Jim has the numbers there–3,656, or whatever it is, pieces that are actually at Kennedy, they're from all parts of the orbiter. There's no particular pattern to it that I saw.

General Barry, do you agree with that?

BARRY: I think, I know some of you have been down there and you've seen it laid out on the floor, it's pretty compelling. And what we are anticipating percentage-wise, we don't know what we'll recover, but obviously we've got a lot of experience of doing this in the past with both aircraft and with the Challenger experience.

So we can't estimate right now what percentage we're going to recover. We hope we recover considerable more, and it's going to be weeks and weeks and weeks when people still continue to turn in parts.

So we're always going to be looking for the key elements that, particularly focusing on the left side of the wing.

GEHMAN: We are weighing the pieces, and it may be that the weight is a better metric than numbers of pieces, because some of the, quote, ``Numbers of pieces,'' are little fragments of insulation, and things like that, which lead, limited, limited value. So they are weighing the pieces, and right now we have a tiny, tiny fraction of the orbiter. Go ahead, Steve Wallace?

WALLACE: Just in a moment to, sort of, put things in perspective again, I just pulled out the remarks made by the president on the 1st of February and the remarks made by the vice president at the service in Washington, and the president's statement right after the accident, ``Our journey into space will go on.''

And the vice president's remarks at the service in Washington commented that the greatest memorial to the astronauts will be a ``vibrant space program with new missions carried out by a new generation of brave explorers.''

QUESTION: I'd like to go back last week to the statement you made on the thermal analysis, and ask you to be as specific as you can on how you're following up on that statement, especially as it regards to the reinforced carbon-carbon on the leading edge and the seal around the landing gear door?

GEHMAN: Jim, you want to take a whack at that?

HALLOCK: Which statement are you referring to?

QUESTION: Your board statement, sir, last week...

GEHMAN: About the heat?

QUESTION: ... thermal analysis.

GEHMAN: The heat rise had to come from a breach.

HALLOCK: Well, as said, that in order to do some of the damage we're now beginning to see, as well as to explain the issues that I mentioned a few minutes ago, and that is, how do you get sensors to fail the way they have done and so on, that it sounds like a breach; it is something that is a very serious contender for what's going on here. How it occurs? Well, once again, we've had many–113 flights, I believe it is, where these craft have experienced these high temperatures and have come through very well. Something different had to have happened. Somehow that TPS, or the thermal protection system, has to have been disturbed in some way. Was it because of something hitting it on launch; the foam or the ablative material or whatever behind it or what?

Something had to do to effect it. Because the system itself, as it's designed, it looks like it should work. I mean, everything we've seen and looked at it and tested it and done and everything, does seem to confirm that that a system that will work, and as I say, has worked very well in the past. Something had to interrupt it. And that's the problem. The interrupt it, whether it broke a piece off somewhere or it caused enough damage that things were weakened. And then when it got into this superheated air, something additional then began to happen or not. That's all we're trying to find out.

GEHMAN: John Barry would also like to follow up on that.

BARRY: I just want to follow on the comment I made early on is that, we can't presuppose that if this breach obviously occurred, was it from inside the orbiter, a failure on the orbiter or a failure because something hit the orbiter. So we are taking a look at all three of those scenarios.

I mean, that's a basic outline. It's much more complicated than that. But that's the basic outline of what we're trying to approach here in going through this as we systematically peel back the system's systems that we're looking at.

QUESTION: This may be a hopeless layman's question, but when you talk about a breach the word sounds large. I'm just wondering if there's any way to explain better. I'm not an expert in hot gas. Can this be some tiny little crack that let in enough plasma or does this have to be a hole, a burn-through–I mean, how big does it have to be to do something like this?

GEHMAN: Well, let me, who's also a layman, see if I can explain it. And then I'll have Dr. Hallock grade my...


The reason that we thought that this bit of analysis–and, of course, this is analysis we're talking about here. It's not a fact–that this bit of analysis was worthy of putting out early on was because it seemed to be a different story than the scenario of either a damaged or a missing piece of tile which heats up the fabric of the shuttle itself, the metal fabric of the shuttle itself. And then, that heated area grows larger until there's some damage done. The analysis that has been done is that a hot exterior or hot skin of the shuttle as it transmits that heat into heat sensors, which are located deep into the wing, that is not sufficient heat to cause those heat sensors to show the rises over the time that they showed. What had to have happened is the actual hot gases that surround the shuttle had to have actually gotten into the wing or into the wheel well somehow.

Now, it could have started as a pin hole or it could have been in that condition before the shuttle ever started re-entry. In other words, what damage could have been done would not be evident on orbit because there's no aerodynamic forces and no heat. Or it could have come from inside the wheel well. Another is, there are pyrotechnics in there. The tire is pressurized to several hundred pounds of pressure.

You know, I don't know any of these things. But we thought the fact that heating of the skin and the metal getting hot and heating that's normal with the shuttle re-entry was not sufficient to cause these temperature rises that we saw inside. Now, Jim, have I got that about right?

HALLOCK: A B-plus.


The other thing to remember that when we're flying in this super-heated air area, what's forming around the spacecraft itself is actually called a shock front. But it is creating a boundary layer. It's not that you have a little tiny pin hole. You need something bigger than just a pin hole for something to actually be able to penetrate...


HALLOCK: ... once it gets in there, then it starts off as being a very small thing, and then would propagate.

HALLOCK: And it becomes much like a–I guess, an arc welder's torch now suddenly being inside the spacecraft or wherever it may–you know, wheel well or wherever. And, you know, and that's an environment for which it was not designed to have that. But it has to find a place and have a place to do it, and we say breach in the sense that something has to have disturbed it somewhere in order for that to happen, because the design of the spacecraft itself is such that that shouldn't happen.

GEHMAN: The reason we're avoiding terms like hole and things like that is because there are places in the shuttle where there are nonstructural closures. There are seals and seams and things like that that are nonpermanent structures. So the reason we're using breach is so we can be more generic.

QUESTION: I've been told that you have pictures from the Maui telescope. Could you tell us if they show you any damage of Columbia as it flew over Hawaii? And if you have them, may we have them?

GEHMAN: We do have pictures from the Maui telescope, and they are still being analyzed.

Maybe, Jim, are you ready to comment on that?

HALLOCK: I've seen very little. I can't really comment at this point.

GEHMAN: We do have photographs. They are being analyzed. I looked at them. I mean, we looked at them, and nothing–we didn't see anything that jumped out at us, but it's early in the process.

QUESTION: I think this one's for Dr. Hallock.

I'm curious...


QUESTION: I'm sorry, go ahead.

GEHMAN: No, no, I was just going to say, the second part of the question about whether or not they're releasable, we'll take that question, and if they are, we'll release them.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: My question is for Dr. Hallock, I think. I have been told that you do have, in fact, or they have gotten some valid data frames out of the 32 seconds. I'm not asking for any interpretation of what the data means. I heard there was a roll reference message, for example, still in a buffer, I guess, you saw in a data frame pretty deep into that 32 seconds.

My question is this: Is there anything in the telemetry that gives you any sense of how long continuity existed between the fuel cells and the cargo bay, and obviously, the instrumentation in the front of the orbiter?

I'm trying to get a sense of how long the basic structure of the thing stayed together before it came apart, is the first part of my question.

And the second part is, I had an aerodynamicist tell me that jet was the wrong word to use because of the dynamic pressure at that altitude and which you would see in the wing, and I was backing off from using the word ``jet,'' and you've got me wanting to use it again.

So I was just wondering a little bit more about the physics of what's going on inside the wing.

HALLOCK: I use the term ``jet'' more because it's something that I thought a lot of people would get a sense of what it would look like and behave. You're right, it doesn't act exactly like that.

Getting back to the other part, I forgot what I was going to say. Excuse me.

QUESTION: Thirty-two seconds.

HALLOCK: Oh, yes, the 32-second part. From what I have learned on that thing, they've been able to look at about five seconds–the first five seconds of that, and the main thing and maybe the only thing that has been learned from that, and this is important, is that the reaction jets, the yaw jets on the rear of the craft, as it was coming up to that 32 seconds, two of them were firing, and everything was, it was doing what it should be doing, it was, you know, getting ready and trying to align the craft as appropriate.

But what happened in those five seconds, apparently the third and then the fourth reaction jet on that same side fired. That is an unusual thing. The point being that the yaw and everything was getting so strong that the system itself decided it needed to keep doing more and more control of the (inaudible).

In terms of what it was trying to do, it was trying to do the right thing. It's not that it got out of control there. But the problem is that when you get up to the point where you now have three, and in this case four of those things, then things are really beginning to happen fast.

What that means in terms of what's still together as part of the craft, that's still things we're playing with, and I really don't have a sense of that as yet.

GEHMAN: I think it's useful to point out that during this regime of the re-entry, interruptions in communications is not unusual. And the term that has been used, ``loss of signal,'' is–we may go back and revise that term, because it was an interruption of the signal at that time, but as you have correctly asked, it turns out that the shuttle–the orbiter was still sending data, and it was garbled and of poor quality.

So a considerable amount of analysis needs to be done to get us past that point. And the analysis continues. You're right, we continue to dig data out of that 32-second time.

QUESTION: Dr. Hallock, earlier you mentioned the melting point of the aluminum being about 1,000 degrees, 1,100 degrees, whatever. I was wondering, since the plasma is about 3,000 degrees, could the whole interior of the wing have caught fire if enough oxygen had been present inside there and that having caused also the melting of the wing and its separation from the orbiter?

HALLOCK: I'm making a guess at this point, to answer your question. First of all, there's not that much oxygen there, remember? We're up at 200,000 feet, and basically it's the same percentage of oxygen, i.e., 20 percent, but it's very rarefied at that point. So there really isn't much oxygen at that altitude.

And also, when you're dealing within the area we're talking about, like within the wing structure, there's not air in there.

HALLOCK: It is basically what the ambient is. It's not pressurized or anything like that. So it is purely whatever the ambient environment is. So I...

QUESTION: This for the admiral. If I understand what you're saying, this investigation is a lot like an onion with quite a few layers, the top layer being–and pardon the technical terms–finding out which widget and which doohickey failed and of which combination to actually cause the accident. The next layer down being a why does that items failed. And then going down into the further layers, whether or not budget, too many safety people getting fired or anything like that has anything to do with it.

Is my interpretation correct?

And if so, will you be telling us as each one of those items find–as you discover each layer or close out each layer, obviously, the highest-priority layer is what happened, but then the reasons for why it happened and how it happened and what caused it to happen– the underlying layers, of course, are also part of your charter, are also more important– will you be giving us these progress reports over time?

And the fault tree, road map, whatever you want to call it, I realize that getting down to the twigs, you're talking about hundreds of thousands, potentially, of items. But can you tell us a rough order of magnitude of what number of key possible scenarios are you looking at right now?

GEHMAN: I would not use the onion analogy myself. We–the reason I say that is because the methodology that we're using is a multi-pronged parallel approach. The energy that Dr. Hallock and his group are pursuing technical and engineering analysis is matched by the energy of General Barry and his group and Mr. Wallace and his group to find causes direct or contributing. So I wouldn't say we're doing it in a series as you described. But in each of those areas, we will dig vertically down to find both the main causes and also the contributing causes.

And yes, as we continue to uncover or discover or develop things which we haven't seen in the press or haven't been speculated on or we haven't previously released, we will periodically make that available. And then we will continue to do this with rotating members of the board up here in which we can have a two-way dialogue about what's interesting and what's not interesting. It will be–it will go on continuously.

And also the public hearings will be, obviously, open to the press because you're public, and you will be able to discern what we're doing and what we're working on by listening to the kinds of witnesses that we talk to.

QUESTION: I guess for General Barry: What kind of testing is being done with foamimpacted tiles? And have you see any early results of those tests.

BARRY: We have–we're in the process of looking at the studies that NASA has already done and has a history. Now we have a–we do have a history listing of foam problems, particularly at the area of question right now, the bipod area.

There was some concerns with STS-7, STS-32, STS-50 and STS-112. I will make a point that in this bipod area that we're looking at, and the analysis that was done, it was almost 10 years between the launch and STS-50, which was in '92, to the next one which was in '02.

So we've got some backtracking to do to be able to look at the history and make the analysis. But we found it very informative when we went down to Kennedy. We actually saw Atlantis on its–being ready to be rolled out on the pad. And they took us up to the specific areas in question. We again saw the same area when we went out to Michoud and looked at the development of the external tanks.

So the board clearly has an understanding of where it was that we think the foam came off of. And we were educated on the ablative material that Dr. Hallock mentioned, that was underneath the foam.

So we've gotten some really good information. I think we're in the process of getting the final reports. We've already looked at some on the analysis that's been done for the foam. And we should have all of that, I think, by the end of this week.

GEHMAN: I might also add that at Michoud is external tank number 94, which is an exact replica of 1893, which was on the Columbia on launch. 1894 might be viewed as a random production line identical sample. It hasn't been touched. It's completely assembled, including this piece of foam that's become so famous. And it's been impounded by us. And we and our independent analysis board, that has nothing to do with NASA, and NASA, are going to mutually agree upon what tests we want to conduct on this–what is essentially a production line sample.

Right now it's impounded and nobody's touching it. So that's something that we will be very careful about because if we do any destructive kinds of tests, we only get one shot at it.

QUESTION: For Dr. Hallock, you mentioned looking at not just the foam, but ablative material and perhaps even metal in terms of impact. Can you explain perhaps are there any indications telling you that you should look at more than just foam there? And what are those indications? And in terms of that, would those be included in the testing that General Barry was talking about?

HALLOCK: The only other thing that is being considered that I can think of at the moment is the also the possibility of ice.

Yes, it was a warm day when it took off, but remember these are–this container, the external tank has inside of it liquid nitrogen–liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which are at very low temperatures.

And then it's being launched through an atmosphere that's getting colder and colder. So that is the other thing that we are looking at.

The point being that one is weighing back and forth, if it was from that area and it was foam, was that strong enough to cause a problem?

That's part of what the testing that's going on. If not, then is there something that could cause more problems, where something like ice, which would be heavier, would obviously cause a much more serious damage on impact, as would something like the ablative material which is much, much heavier than the foam itself.

At this point, as I say, I have no proof that any of these things occurred, but it's, once more, another thing on the checklist that we need to look at as being a possibility. (UNKNOWN): One insight I might add to that is, we found out the ablative material underneath the foam really doesn't serve a purpose, so using the simple terms I asked them, I said, ``How can you explain to me what might happen with that, and had there been any moisture or any kind of nitrogen that might have been available in that time–it could have soaked it up when it's cold?'' OK, and then when it got heated up because of the hydrogen-oxygen interface it could have kind of found a release.

So we're looking at that as maybe an option on why the foam came off and why we've had some problems in that area.

QUESTION: A follow-up on the type of testing and where it's being done. What have you gotten going so far in the way of testing the foam and whatever kind of materials to see how you can back-track and recreate the kind of damage that you're looking for? And also, not just damage that might have been involved in the incident itself but also to be able to parse out what in the debris that you're looking at is maybe from the initial accident, and what was caused by the ballistic, you know, trajectory falling down? And what testing is being done specifically as far as you can say?

GEHMAN (?): Let me start that by saying the first thing we're doing is, this subject is not new to NASA. And there is a library full of testing on the strength of the tiles. They've shot .22s at it; they've shot BBs at it; they dropped balls at it; they've shot ice at it. There's an enormous library of testing that tells us how strong the tiles are. There's a great library of testing that's already been done on the foam. So before we go ordering NASA to do things, the first thing we're doing is getting smart.

The second thing that we're doing is we are now connecting on a operational basis, or on a routine basis, with each of the 10 NASA working groups that are looking at this. And so the NASA engineers have proposed some tests that they want to run on their own. I mean, they are–they want to get to the bottom of this, too.

So the second thing we're doing is coordinating and getting together with the working groups that are leading this inquiry.

The third thing that we are going to do, and have not done, is then have our independent review panel, technical review panel, look and see if all that is sufficient, or whether or not we should order independent tests. That has not yet–we have not yet reached that stage.

Right now there is more tests on this stuff than we have been able to absorb so far. And it goes back for years and years and years, the history of whether or not foam, which is soft and light, can damage tiles, which are pretty tough.

So the answer to your question is as of–unless Jim wants to correct me, I don't think we have–we haven't ordered a specific, different test than is going on.

QUESTION: Has NASA done any of its own yet to...

GEHMAN (?): NASA has tests ongoing right now. I won't comment on that because it's way too preliminary.

QUESTION: You mentioned that you were in the process of ruling things out. Can you talk about some of the things you've ruled out as contributing factors?

WALLACE: No, I think we're still–we haven't ruled anything out. This accident investigation is very much at the beginning, and everything's on the table.

So all of those areas that I talked about, where unlike some other areas, nobody's raised a red flag and said, ``Boy, we'd better look at this.''

We're looking at the entire scope of the operation and, you know, everything that led up to the launch decision. Again, training and payloads are areas that have gotten much less attention than things like thermal protective systems and falling foam.

So–but I will say that at this point nothing has been ruled out.

QUESTION: Hello, Admiral Gehman. I have a question for you. Have you launched the database and the knowledge management system that you plan to use to keep track of the information you're gathering?

And secondly, do you expect to pass on these databases and systems to NASA in an effort to prevent accidents that might be caused by the cause of this accident, or even other problems you pinpoint that could be–that could reduce risk in future flights?

GEHMAN: The answer is yes, we've launched five, six, seven different IT products, some of which have proprietary names so I won't get into them. But we have a debris database which has been launched, which will help us plot where the debris has come out.

We have a software, a group decision, a groupware kind of a process that we, the board, use to collaborate with each other. We have a investigatory management piece of software which makes sure that we don't overlook anything, or that we methodically close things out, that we follow up on all the leads and we haven't missed any doors or anything like that.

And we also have a documents archival system which we are just in the process of getting on-line. And the documents that we archive will be a matter of public record. And the GAO, the Congress of the United States or anybody, any other authorized agency will have access to these and will use our IT-based archival system, and we will use it also, of course, to cross-check things and reference things and go dig things out. This is just at the beginning of–we're just at the beginning of this. I expect we'll have more than 10,000 documents in our archives library by the time we get finished. BARRY (?): May I mention, just comment, if I can, the Challenger was an enormous task in how it was handled; we've learned a lot of lessons from that. Of course, we're 17 years further on with our development in IT. But we'll have capabilities for document management, search on authors and titles and description, task assignments and action. Tracking group software will allow us to do all the sorting and analysis that need to be done. So it should be pretty functional and available.

So we're looking forward to having that as part of our team effort.

QUESTION: Admiral, you talked about the final report being put in context and looking at more than just the root cause, the contributing causes.

I guess with an eye toward return to flight, if we can be optimistic already, what kind of recommendations do you expect you might make that NASA should begin immediately? For example, always being able to launch with the capability to fix the tile or always being able to launch where you could dock with a space station or those kind of things that would fundamentally change the way space flight is conducted.

GEHMAN: It's hard for me to be definitive because I don't know what we're going to find. But I can envision that if it's possible we can find a direct cause of this. We would then have to find the root and contributing causes to that root cause.

In other words, if it was a material failure or something like that, then we would get at the inspection process, the quality assurance process, the redundancy business. And we would–if we found something like that, the board is willing to release those findings as we become sure of them so that NASA can get on with the fixes and establish a return to flight process, keeping the investigation open for other contributing causes until we're finished.

We expect that our report will be the basis upon which the government can make those kinds of decisions. We aren't going to make them for them. But if we find fixable things that we think directly caused this, just like the FAA issues orders to airplane manufacturers and owners to change this inspection from every 1,000 hours or every 10 hours or something like, if we can find something like that, we'll do that. That'll help the RTF process. But we got to be pretty sure about this before we do it, because there might be more than one cause.

We have a very, very broad and complete investigation going.

QUESTION: My question is for Dr. Hallock. Have you been looking at the ascent data, and have you seen anything unusual, however small, that maybe looked nominal on ascent that maybe you're looking at now in terms of the orbiter trying to make any adjustments before main engine cutoff?

HALLOCK: That is something that is on my list to do. I have not done that at this time.

QUESTION: Admiral, how many further additions do you expect to make to the board, if any? And if so, when will that process be completed?

GEHMAN: Right. The subject of additional board members is open. I am interested in additional board members. It will be determined by categories of expertise we need on the board. As the investigation proceeds, I'm becoming aware that we do need expertise in different areas. And if I feel that need, I will add additional members. I don't have a timetable.

Certainly, the workload would support additional members. This is a very, very fastpaced investigation that's picking up a considerable amount of steam, and the workload would support additional members. But I would do it by categories or subject matter experts rather than just popularity kind of thing.

QUESTION: Can you clarify a little bit how you go about measuring a budget process that is largely political in scientific terms essentially? Maybe you can give us an example that you may be able to draw a conclusion, for example, that the fact that NASA's budget has not grown in recent years could be a contributing factor. Is that the kind of thing that you're talking about?

GEHMAN: It is the kind of thing. I think that I would describe it differently. We'll see how this turns out. I would go after it on an affects-based approach. That is, were employees laid off, was (sic) supervisory positions eliminated, were quality assurance– were risk management people laid off, rather than the budget number. The budget number is fungible, particularly when you're then dividing the budget up among different pots. The budget number is like the Dow Jones Industrial Average, it's something you can grab on to.

But I would tend to go and look at this from the affect that it had on the program rather than condemning any particular number. But we'll see where this leads us. We'll go where it goes.

QUESTION: Dr. Hallock, if I heard you correctly you said the shuttle first started shedding parts, for lack of a better term, right around the coast of California. Why do you think we haven't seen any debris pieces or unless there's been a change in that status? Do you think we might–is it possible?

And then–a totally unrelated Part B–in your travels to Michoud, there have been some reports floating around out there, maybe, Admiral Gehman, you can handle this part about shoddy workmanship done there. Did you find any evidence of that? And if so, what's to be learned from Michoud?

GEHMAN: You can go ahead, Jim.

HALLOCK: Well, the first part concerning the debris or something coming from the shuttle itself early on in its coming back to Earth.

HALLOCK: First of all, you've got to look at the issue of the size of these things. Some of the early ones, at least from looking at how the intensity of the light that's reflected from it, I'm not so sure that they're very big pieces. And so, you've got to get a sense of that.

And so, if they are not very large pieces, depending on what they are, they are very likely a lot of those will burn up in the atmosphere before they get back to Earth. We're pressed to find something that far back along the path. I think it's going to have to be a pretty substantial piece of the shuttle itself. Then if we can find, well, you know, that's a lot of area to be looking. And so, people are trying to narrow it down, such as looking at well, one of the things that I was involved in was trying to look at some of the radar data from the FAA, looking for things that were not airplanes.

In other words, something was up there; did something come down in this area at any time that was not correlated with an aircraft to say maybe, hey, we can triangulate it here a little bit and maybe find some areas. I'm concerned about that, because, you know, we have the Grand Canyon area and all of the areas of Southern California, mountainous areas and stuff like this that even if we could home in on some of these things, that it's going to be very difficult to find it. I sure would like to see it.

GEHMAN: The second part of your question, the board was extraordinarily impressed by what we saw in New Orleans at Michoud. It's a fabulous facility, well run, extraordinarily clean and very high tech. And I don't know where anybody got any stories that we were aware of shoddy workmanship or anything like that.

First of all, we weren't investigating while we were there, we were learning. But we spent hours there. We walked every–walked the road every inch of the plant, and I would disassociate myself from any kind of comments that said that we were not anything but impressed.

QUESTION: General Barry, you mentioned early in this briefing that one of the things your group would look at was management, specifically of the shuttle program. Last year's ASAP report identified the issue of changes in management and administration at various places as a potential safety issue with the shuttle program. I'm wondering if your group will look beyond shuttle program management to the numerous administrative changes NASA has experienced in the last year or two as a potential cause.

BARRY: The short answer is yes. We are certainly going to be talking to ASAP. We want to have the reports that they've provided available to us. We are in a process of making that request. Certainly in understanding how the decisions are made in last year when large numbers of the board members were replaced, and what was the decision process of behind those.

We have a series of questions that we want to look at, particularly, not presupposing a good answer or a bad answer, because a lot of those decisions could have been excellent decisions. But it certainly is on our laundry list of questions that we want to work. So we will be working the, kind of, overseer, supervisory, outside advice–we're certainly going to take advantage of that in the course of our investigations. So the short answer is, yes.

STAFF: OK, I think we're going to wrap up the press conference at this point. I'd like to thank everyone for coming out. We do plan another one next Tuesday at about the same time. We'll let you know about that.

Also, as we depart the press conference here, we're going to put up a slate with the board's address for those who want to send in written comments from the public. And as you know, we'll have a Web site and a 1-800 phone number up within about a week. So we'll keep adding those abilities for people to contact the board directly.

Thank you very much.


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