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CAIB hearing
A sparse crowd attends the June 12 CAIB public hearing in Washington. (credit: J. Foust)

Watching the CAIB at work

Like most people, I have been following the Columbia investigation from a distance, relying on media reports as well as the occasional televised or webcast public hearing and press conference as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) carried out its work in Houston and Cape Canaveral. However, with the investigation phase of the board’s work winding down, the CAIB has shifted operations from Houston to the Washington DC area as it prepares to complete its report, still scheduled for release in late July.

The CAIB decided to hold one final public hearing in Washington on June 12, the only CAIB hearing held in the nation’s capital; all the rest, save one at Cape Canaveral, had occurred in Houston. I decided to attend for two reasons. One was interest in the subject matter itself: discussions of some of the policy and managerial issues at NASA that could be at the root of the accident. That, though, could have been as easily accomplished by just sitting at my computer and watching a webcast of the hearing. The second, though, was an interest in being a witness to history in the making, seeing part of the investigation—albeit a tiny, glossy part of it—in person. That was something no webcast could satisfy.

As it turned out, not that many other people shared my interest. The hearing was held in an auditorium that is part of the conference center of the National Transportation Safety Board, which in turn is part of the sprawling, labyrinthine, L’Enfant Plaza office complex in downtown Washington (a few people, including those who have lived in Washington for years, complained about the difficulty finding the site.) The auditorium could accommodate 350 people, but excluding the media—concentrated in the first two rows so that a boom mike operator could reach them during a press conference later in the day—no more than a few dozen people attended.

The auditorium could accommodate 350 people, but excluding the media no more than a few dozen people attended.

This limited turnout surprised me, especially since I had arrived 20 minutes before the 9 am start of the hearing to make sure I could get a seat! I, as well as a few other people I chatted with who were also surprised by the low attendance, had anticipated more people interested in the only public hearing the CAIB would hold in Washington. Surely there would be plenty of Congressional staffers, policy analysts, aerospace executives, and the like interested in the board’s activities. While, indeed, such people might be, they had evidently decided to watch a webcast of the proceedings or, more likely, wait for the press reports that would come out of the meeting. Chalk it up to another case of Space Geek Tunnel Vision: assuming that what you, a space geek, think is fascinating will be of similar interest to others, when in fact it isn’t.

The public hearing: understanding policy and management

The limited attendance at the hearing wasn’t restricted to the audience. Although the CAIB has 13 members, only seven were present for the hearing: board chairman Harold Gehman, John Barry, John Logsdon, Douglas Osheroff, Sally Ride, Stephen Turcotte, and Steven Wallace. (An eighth member, Scott Hubbard, appeared at a press conference in the afternoon, but did not sit in the hearings.) The whereabouts of the other five weren’t announced.

The CAIB divided the four people scheduled to testify before the board into two panels of two persons each. The first panel, consisting of Marcia Smith of the Congressional Research Service and Allen Li of the General Accounting Office, focused primarily on NASA’s budget and the management challenges the agency faced. The second panel, with former United Space Alliance (USA) CEO Russ Turner and former aerospace and NASA executive Tom Young, looked at how the shuttle fared under the Space Flight Operations Contract (SFOC). During both panels members of the CAIB regularly asked questions during the testimony, with Gehman among the most inquisitive; Ride and Turcotte, on the other hand, rarely asked questions.

Smith gave a presentation on NASA’s budget in general, particularly in comparison with the overall federal budget, and on the space shuttle budget in detail. In fiscal year 2002 the shuttle accounted for 23 percent of NASA’s overall budget, the largest single component of the budget. This high profile has made the shuttle the target of cuts by both Congress and NASA itself over the years, but Smith suggested that, in terms of its effect on the Columbia accident, the size of the shuttle budget may be a moot point. “If NASA did not fully appreciate the dangers associated with foam hitting the orbiter,” she said, “it’s not clear that an increased budget would have helped that situation.”

Li noted that NASA has faced four major challenges in recent years. The first has been strengthening its “human capital management”, or, in other words, hiring and retaining employees. (Some have argued that this is less of a concern than publicly claimed; see “Is NASA’s brain drain a myth?”, June 9, 2003.) Li noted, under questioning, that while job cuts in the shuttle program during the 1990s had caused problems, the workforce had not “declined to the point where it was unsafe to fly.” NASA has also had problems turning engineers into effective managers. “When I talk to engineers at NASA, they say, ‘I came to NASA to design spaceships. I did not come to be a project manager.’”

“If NASA did not fully appreciate the dangers associated with foam hitting the orbiter,” Smith said, “it’s not clear that an increased budget would have helped that situation.”

NASA’s second challenge dealt with monitoring the activities of its contractors: Li said that the agency lacked reliable information on the progress and results made by contractors. The third challenge was dealing with the ballooning costs and overruns associated with the International Space Station program, issues that became well-known in recent years but now seemed to be under control to some degree. The two are related to some degree, because both stemmed from a lack of an integrated financial management system that could provide managers with real-time data. NASA is in the process of implementing such a system, but Li said he had mixed feeling about how the system had been implemented to date.

The fourth challenge was NASA’s efforts to reduce launch costs through such notable, and largely failed, efforts like the X-33 and the Space Launch Initiative. These have had an effect on the shuttle, notably with upgrade plans: NASA has been uncertain how long the shuttle would have to remain in service until a successor vehicle is available, and thus has been reticent on making long-term investments in the shuttle.

Gehman seemed particularly interested in this point. “We tend to punish ourselves when we realize that space exploration is so hard, and consequently we find ourselves today without a replacement vehicle for the shuttle,” he said. “I didn’t realize how difficult it is to put an object in orbit. It was difficult when we first did it in the 60s and it hasn’t got any easier.”

After a short break, the second panel convened. Turner, who left USA in May to become president of Honeywell Engines, Systems, and Services, discussed in detail the SFOC and its effect on shuttle operations. SFOC is the single prime contract for space shuttle operations that USA has held since 1996. Throughout his presentation Turner said that the company made safety a higher priority than making a profit, noting that the company invested $190 million in cost savings into safety rather than return it to NASA and get 35 percent of it back as a bonus under terms of the contract. The loss of Columbia will result in $70 million in lost incentive fees, including money USA may have to pay back to NASA if USA is held accountable for the accident, he said.

“I didn’t realize how difficult it is to put an object in orbit,” said Gehman. “It was difficult when we first did it in the 60s and it hasn’t got any easier.”

One question got to the heart of the debate over the shuttle program in general. Barry asked Turner if the space shuttle could be considered an “operational” vehicle, rather than an experimental, developmental spacecraft. Turner said he considered the shuttle an operational vehicle because its purpose was not testing but to “perform missions independent of the vehicle itself.” However, he noted the shuttle is not operational in the same sense as a jetliner like the Boeing 737. One major difference between the shuttle and a jetliner, Turner said, was that NASA and USA found things on the shuttle that don’t perform as expected because of design issues. The other difference was “new science” issues: discovering problems that no one anticipated because no vehicle like the shuttle has flown before. Turner cited the cracked flown liners found in the main engines last year as an example: no one flew cryogenic reusable engines before the shuttle, and thus there was no experience to baseline wear-and-tear issues like this.

Young, in relatively brief comments, said that space is an unforgiving environment: “One strike and you’re out.” Because of this, government should play a significant role in the shuttle and other programs, rather than just funding and executing contracts. He advocated the creation of a “third set of eyes”: the creation of a small team of experienced engineers whose job would be to “follow curiosities and look for issues” that nay have been overlooked by others. Assembling such a group, Young maintained, would not require “big money.”

page 2: the press conference >>