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Wayne Hale
Wayne Hale was the “ideal NASA role model” during a troubled time for the shuttle program: competent, smart, and thoughtful. (credit: NASA)

Hale and farewell

Last week there were two related bits of news that should cause those who are interested in the human space program to take pause and think a bit. The first was the announcement that Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale was leaving his position to take a new job at Johnson Space Center. The other was the announcement of a new, traveling “Columbia Safety Exhibit” displaying several pieces of debris recovered from the Columbia accident. The creation of that exhibit was due to Wayne Hale. And nobody should be surprised by that.

During the Columbia flight, Hale had tried unsuccessfully to gather more data on the effects of a foam strike on the shuttle’s wing. For many of those who worked for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), Hale was “one of the good guys” and was widely admired (see “Wayne Hale: one of the good guys”, The Space Review, September 25, 2006). There were plenty of people at NASA who had seriously screwed up and who had rather appalling attitudes towards safety. After one impact test on the foam, I remember one NASA engineer loudly bragging about how tough his foam was and how it was not responsible for the accident—exuberance that seemed badly misplaced, if not outright offensive. Although Hale may not have fit the mode of Gene Kranz in the movie Apollo 13, he was really the ideal NASA role model: competent, smart, and thoughtful.

For many of those who worked for the CAIB, Hale was “one of the good guys” and was widely admired.

During the Columbia investigation, the chairman of the CAIB, Admiral Hal Gehman, had made it clear to the board members and staff that the final report would lay out the facts, but would not specifically implicate individuals. That was the responsibility of the White House and Congress, Gehman said. His view was that individuals come and go and what is important is the bureaucracy and culture that they operate within—they had to change. The culture and the organizational rules had to work in such a way that senior management did not suppress the concerns of lower level operators and engineers like Wayne Hale.

Certainly after the CAIB report was produced some culpable people were quietly moved out of their jobs. Others were actually promoted, with the explanation that, now chastened, they had learned from their mistakes and were in a better position to warn of dangers.

But it is worth asking if actual external oversight of shuttle safety has occurred in the ways that Admiral Gehman had originally hoped. My own gut feeling is that the CAIB may have undermined itself by being so hard-hitting. There was a lot of initial controversy that the investigation was not independent because it was chartered by NASA, even though it was led and staffed primarily by military and some non-NASA personnel. Before the investigation produced its final report, there were many people, including some in Congress, who expected it to be a whitewash. But when it turned out to be a harsh report—earning the moniker “the independent investigation”—that may have led the enforcers to believe that they did not have to do any oversight. There was no subsequent congressional investigation, and in fact there have been almost no congressional hearings on shuttle safety. Fixing NASA’s flawed safety culture—which was implicated by the investigation—fell to NASA itself.

In September 2005 Wayne Hale was promoted to Shuttle Program Manager and several of the former CAIB staffers took this as a good sign that NASA was on the right track. Hale had the experience, the attitude, and the reputation for doing the right thing that NASA needed for the shuttle.

The two years since Hale took over the shuttle management have provided numerous examples of why he was the right guy in that position. Shuttle launches have occasionally been delayed due to safety concerns and because Hale has been at the helm, those calls have apparently not been challenged. Late last year NASA rolled the shuttle out to the pad, prepared to launch, and then scrubbed the mission due to continuing problems with the external tank hydrogen sensors. They stood down from the launch and worked on the problem. This was embarrassing and frustrating and it was, in many ways, a great sign that the agency was taking safety seriously.

Admiral Gehman told his board members and staff that the first few missions after Columbia would be relatively safer because everybody would be on their toes, paranoid, even terrified of making mistakes that could cause another accident. People would stay late to check their work, they would be conscious of all the things that could go wrong.

But Gehman warned that the real test would be seven or eight missions after the initial return to flight, and especially as the program wound down. It was then when workers would get lazy or sloppy, and would stop putting in extra hours or asking for a second opinion. They would start to think that shuttle launches had become… routine. The effect could be extremely subtle, when people stop questioning their assumptions and stop listening to the whispers of the machine. That would be the time of maximum danger.

Count the number of missions since return to flight—we are about to launch the eighth post-Columbia mission. Shuttle is now viewed by many within the program as a career dead-end, and younger people—the kind who are likely to work extra hours and come in on weekends to make sure that everything is right—are leaving for projects that, unlike shuttle, will have a budget beyond 2010. We are entering the time of maximum danger right about now.

This does not mean that anything is wrong with the shuttle program. But it does prompt a tough question: how would we know if anything is wrong with the shuttle program? How would we recognize the signs? Up to now, we could only count on the words and actions of Hale, who clearly put safety above schedule for the shuttle.

And now Hale is leaving.

Gehman warned that the real test would be seven or eight missions after the initial return to flight, and especially as the program wound down. Count the number of missions since return to flight—we are about to launch the eighth post-Columbia mission.

When announcing the Columbia Safety Exhibit Hale explained that “The only bulwark between an accident and a safe, successful space mission is the competence and attention of highly focused individuals. If we are to truly honor the sacrifice of these crews, we must teach that lesson to every new person that comes to work here and live each day with the utmost commitment to safety in all its details.”

This is a traveling exhibit and will visit each of the NASA centers. It would be great if it also made a stop at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The museum is a place to celebrate America’s triumphs. But it also serves an important educational mission as well. It should teach about what happens when mistakes happen in a highly complex and unforgiving endeavor like human spaceflight.

What is far more important is that the people who work in the shuttle program, and who oversee it, learn those lessons, and keep learning those lessons. The program has less than three years left. Those are three years of danger. And we can only hope that the people involved are not growing complacent.

But is hope enough, especially now that Wayne Hale is not there to make the right calls? How will we know that things are not right, that the machine is whispering, and nobody is listening?