The Gehman Board
Preventing future accidents
Admiral Gehman also stressed the importance of identifying other potentially-fatal flaws in the shuttle system. It’s not sufficient for us to simply explain what went wrong, Gehman told the Board and staff on numerous occasions. We need to prevent future accidents, not simply explain past ones. He always couched it in terms of shuttle safety, but many of us knew that finding other problems would enhance the CAIB’s credibility. Many of us knew that the Challenger investigation had actually looked at the issue of foam impacting the thermal protection system and never identified it as a flight safety problem. Perhaps if they had, the Columbia accident never would have happened.
Eventually the investigators came up with several examples of other potentially fatal flaws in the shuttle system. The most notable of these were the bolt catchers on the solid rocket boosters. NASA was flying equipment that had actually failed certification. If the CAIB had not identified this problem, it is possible that in the future a failed bolt catcher could destroy another orbiter. Admiral Gehman stressed that we should not have tunnel vision and focus only on what went wrong on STS-107, but should look at the rest of the shuttle system, as well as the organization that allowed persistent warning signs to be ignored.
The CAIB, perhaps more than any other major accident investigation before it, expanded the traditional definition of an accident’s causes beyond the immediate direct and indirect causal relationships and the technical issues to include the culture of the program and the political and other environmental factors that either caused or allowed it to happen. Admiral Gehman had rewritten the CAIB’s charter several times to expand its scope. Newspaper articles claimed that he did this under pressure from Congress, and it was true that Congress had encouraged him to broaden the investigation’s purview. Anybody who listened to Gehman in meetings, though, realized that such pressure was unnecessary, because he knew that it was more than a simple mechanical failure that had destroyed the Columbia.
In May, Group 4 made a major presentation to the Board on the policy and budget history of the shuttle program. Many, maybe even most, of the people working on CAIB, including most of the Board members, had little knowledge of NASA or the overall shuttle program beyond their small area of focus. Part of Group 4’s job was therefore to educate the Board itself on the larger context in which the accident occurred. We discussed Dan Goldin’s tenure and his efforts to reform the agency and the shuttle program, and how he had much success in some areas and little success in others like the shuttle. We discussed the NASP and the X-33 and NASA’s on-again/off-again quest to develop a shuttle replacement. We also explained how NASA’s planned shuttle retirement date constantly changed during the 1990s. Along with these changes came changes in planned safety upgrades. Our presentation was very well-received, and at the end Gehman remarked that it was clear that one of NASA’s problems was the lack of clear political direction and a goal for the agency. Without it, the plans for the shuttle changed constantly. Ultimately, that idea made it into the final report, and was one of the CAIB statements that inspired what became the Vision for Space Exploration.
This is not to say that Gehman was perfect. There were times where Board members disagreed with the Admiral. There were a few things that I and others felt should have made it into the final report that Gehman removed very late in the editing process. The Admiral felt that it was the duty of others, at NASA and in Congress, to deal with the individuals who bore responsibility for the accident. “The members of Congress will be the enforcers,” he once said, and he reminded everyone that democracies regularly conducted their own form of human sacrifices. Although most of us agreed with him on this, there was always a question of just where we should draw the line between organizations and the people who ran and worked in them and lay a little more blame at the feet of NASA’s past and current leadership. We were somewhat concerned that being too vague would prevent the proper choices from being made by the enforcers. However, Admiral Gehman was the chairman, and that gave him the right to make the big decisions. Overall his guidance was excellent.
CAIB, the movie
It may sound strange, and perhaps a little impolitic, but Gehman made the CAIB an enjoyable place to work. Our job was to honor the Columbia’s crew and to try and prevent future accidents, but people work better when they not only believe in, but enjoy what they do, and Admiral Gehman helped establish that atmosphere. During the early morning tag-up meetings he was always in a good mood and we began to watch for what we eventually called “Gehmanisms,” or folksy-sounding sayings about high-tech problems. Several of us even started keeping lists, fully intending to steal them for our own use.
In late May 2003, only a few days before the CAIB was scheduled to move to new offices in northern Virginia, the staff and some of the Board members produced a “storyboard” of the final report. This was a basic outline of what the report would look like. It turned out that this storyboard bore only limited resemblance to the final product, but we did not know that at the time. We thought that we had achieved a major milestone leading into the final phase of the investigation, the writing process. (Later many of us laughed when we heard rumors that we had already written a 100-page executive summary at a time when the staffers had not even formally started writing. At a meeting Admiral Gehman asked if anybody had a copy, “because then we can all just go home.”) At the conclusion of the storyboard meeting, Gehman suggested that we all go to Molly’s Pub to celebrate. Molly’s was only a short drive from CAIB headquarters and only a mile or so from the Johnson Space Center gate, and has a great covered exterior porch and relatively cheap beer.
So Admiral Gehman, a few Board members, and several staffers all retired to Molly’s, where we sat around a table outside shooting the breeze as the sun started to go down. At one point I suggested that now that we had a CAIB storyboard, we could begin casting “CAIB, The Motion Picture.” Another staffer pulled out a pad and paper and we asked for suggestions as to who would play the Board members. Naturally, the people who were not present suffered the worst indignity, being played by actors they might not like—Billy Crystal, Dustin Hoffman (in his Rain Man persona). Then someone asked who would play the Admiral. “Paul Newman,” Gehman answered. “I look like Paul Newman.” It was true that he bore some resemblance to Paul Newman (although Gehman was tall and Newman is not). However, Newman wasn’t a star anymore, and it didn’t matter what the actor looked like, as long as he could bring in the crowds and attract a younger demographic. Eventually we convinced him that Paul Newman was too old to play him. So over Gehman’s objections we wrote down “Tom Hanks as Admiral Gehman.” Gehman gave us his best imitation of a scowl and reluctantly crossed out Paul Newman’s name from the list. I kept that piece of paper.
When high-profile committees or investigations are formed in Washington, it is common for them to quickly be named after their chair. In contrast, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is rarely called “the Gehman committee.” It is usually referred to as the CAIB, or “kabe.” This is fitting, for the CAIB involved thirteen board members and over 150 staffers, and their hard work was the center of the investigation. But it was Gehman who made the CAIB great.