After Ten Years – Dramatis Personae Part 1

Space Shuttle Program Management After Columbia

Space Shuttle Program Management Council after Columbia

In this picture from left to right:  Joyce Rozewski, Lee Norbraten, Sandy Coleman, Steve Doering, Jim Halsell, Dorothy Rasco, Bob Cabana, Steve Brettle, Dave Martin, Lambert Austin, Mike Wetmore, Bill Harris, Parker Counts, Ralph Roe, Neil Otte, Jim Costello, Jerry Smelser, Jody Singer, Linda Ham, Me, Ron Dittemore, UNIDENTIFIED, John Harpold, Billy Readdy, Dave Hamilton, Joan Baker, Bill Parsons.  The picture taken at the Space Shuttle Program Management Council meeting in the spring of 2003 (March or April).  All of us smiling a little wanly at the direction of the photographer.  It was not good times for the Space Shuttle Program.

In this age of electronic communications some pundits have postulated that face to face meetings are no longer required to carry out business.  That has not been my experience.  Video conferencing, telephone calls, email, and all the rest are useful but to make sure a geographically diverse team is working toward common goals, nothing beats face time.

Some smart Shuttle Program Manager before my time had instituted the practice of having all the senior managers from across the various centers meet at some neutral, non-NASA site every other month to discuss issues, priorities, and direction.  This was absolutely essential for a multi-center program in NASA.  There are 10 “field centers” in the agency which some wag termed a collection of loosely related fiefdoms serving under an ineffective emperor.”   NASA headquarters has always had a very loose control over the centers and each one of them marches to a slightly different set of priorities with the internecine feuding over scarce resources.  I have had the opportunity to discuss the problems this creates with three different NASA administrators, and none of them have been interested in reforming the agency.  Good or bad, that is the situation and a smart program manager learns how to deal with reality.  Face to face time helps build the team and overcome those inter-center rivalries.

So this photograph shows the Space Shuttle Program management team in a time of transition, weeks after the Columbia accident.  New faces are popping up and some old faces are on their way out.  By mid 2003, NASA had effectively removed all the senior management which had been in effect at the time of the Columbia accident and replaced it a new management team. 

As I think about the events of ten years ago, many of the critical personnel are in this photograph.  Next time, I will discuss several significant characters that didn’t make it into this class picture.

Just for fun, let’s work from the far right – opposite of the usual way. 

Bill Parsons – Space Shuttle Program Manager elect.  Bill is incredibly adept at sizing up personnel and applying the right person for the right job; he has a great technical background, but his best skills are as a leader.  Bill served as a Captain in the Marine Corps infantry and those leadership skills never left him. Originally working at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he rose to prominence as the Deputy Center Director at JSC where he could transform George Abby’s decisions into crisp direction for JSC managers to follow.  He was Center Director at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi when the Columbia accident occurred.  The Administrator named Bill to be the Space Shuttle Program Manager following Ron Dittemore’s imminent retirement.

Joan Baker – staff officer for the Space Shuttle Program at JSC, more than just an administrative assistant, she made the logistics of travel and meetings happen seamlessly, and she made the best powerpoint charts in the agency – no small feat. 

Dave Hamilton – JSC Engineering, serving as Chief Engineer for the Space Shuttle Program.  Smart, witty, decisive.  Known for that handlebar mustache and a twinkle in his eye as he waded into complex technical decisions.  He, like many of us, had a vote in the decision to launch Columbia.

Bill Readdy – peering out between Dave and Jon Harpold, Bill is an ex-astronaut, very articulate, very forceful. Bill was serving as the Associate Administrator for the Office of Human Space Flight – probably the #4 guy in the NASA HQ chain of command.  Bill understood the shuttle as well as anybody, and he, too, was involved in the decision making that lead up to Columbia

Jon Harpold – JSC Director of Mission Operations, heir to the organization built by the legendary Gene Kranz.  Jon was one of the few heads of MOD not to have served as a Flight Director, or as a flight controller.  Jon was an entry analyst, one of the very best.   Nobody understood the intricacies of the shuttle guidance and navigation systems like Jon.  He was also a great organizer.  He also voted to launch Columbia and for her re-entry.

Next, actually standing by me on the last row is UNIDENTIFIED.  Told you my memories are going.  Not enough face there for me to identify him; and while I remember the picture being taken, I can’t remember who was next to me.

Ron Dittemore – Space Shuttle Program Manager, outbound.  One of my oldest work colleagues, he was in the same “section” (lowest level work group) in MOD when I reported to JSC in 1978.  We worked together in the Propulsion systems section for several years, both getting promotions to first level manager about the same time.  He made it into the Flight Director office before me, but we worked there together for almost a decade.  We knew each other professionally, and socially.  One of the smartest, most ambitious people I have ever known.  I still consider him a good friend.  He was in charge during Columbia’s mission but was making preparations to leave NASA for private industry.

I’m standing on the back row right behind Linda Ham.  You’ll get my fill story over the next few installments.  I was serving a rotational (temporary) assignment to KSC as the Space Shuttle Launch Integration Manager – my first official day on that job was the day we lost Columbia.  I was at the SSP council as the Launch Int Manager.

Linda Ham was the SSP Flight Operations Integration Manager from JSC.  She had come to work in the Prop Section with Ron and I  (it is interesting to note how many senior NASA managers and Flight Directors came out of the Shuttle Propulsion systems section: Bill Gerstenmaier, Mike Moses, Tony Ceccacci, Richard Jackson, Kathy Koerner, and more). Linda is an outstanding technical expert, her judgment is superior, and she is very energetic and hardworking.  And she bore the brunt of the media firestorm after Columbia, becoming the scapegoat for the accident.  That was hardly the case, as we shall see.

Jody Singer was the Solid Rocket Motor Project Manager from MSFC.  Extremely smart, a great leader, she kept the rocket production going up in Utah to our stringent requirements.  She inherited the organization that was at the center of the Challenger disaster and they had learned their lesson the hard way.  We would have been well advised to seek Jody’s advice prior to Columbia.  But the MSFC guys were reticent to weigh in on Orbiter problems; JSC guarded that work jealously.

Jerry Smelser was the External Tank Project Manager from MSFC.  His earlier position at the SSP launch preparation reviews was the “foam loss [from the ET] has never been a safety of flight issue” – words I am sure he regretted.  I never worked very much with Jerry; he was clearly leaving at the time this picture was taken; I had just arrived on the SSP management team.

Jim Costello was the SSP Business Office Chief at JSC. He was uncanny at tracking down money saving opportunities inside the program.  Every year, his office prepared the budgets, making sure the Program would reduce costs as HQ had directed us.  Well liked but also held in some fear by the project managers.  Jim didn’t have a vote on the launch or re-entry decisions, but money played a huge role in what happened.  There is a lesson here somewhere for financial guys; your decisions can have life and death consequences, too.

Neil Otte – a MSFC guy representing the Shuttle Propulsion Office.  Neil held various positions within the MSFC organizations, but was not a key decision maker.

Ralph Roe – JSC Orbiter Project Manager.  Arguably, Orbiter PM was the 4th most important guy at JSC.  Originally from KSC, Ralph is extraordinarily smart, laconic, but forceful.  The Orbiter Project organization made the recommendation to re-enter Columbia, so ultimately Ralph was in that chain of command.  After the SSP reorganization, Ralph was put in charge of an independent organization, the NASA Engineering and Safety office (NESC) where they provide inputs for all the high risk operations that NASA undertakes.

Parker Counts represented NASA HQ.  Parker had been the ET Project Manager at MSFC, but in recent years he had been helping to establish policy at NASA HQ.  Parker was not involved with the Columbia decision making, but he had wrestled with foam issues years before.

Bill Harris was the JSC SSP Safety Office contracting officer; responsible to see that the safety work done by contractors was performed properly.  The CAIB did not have pleasant things to say about NASA’s safety organization, but Bill was not allowed improve the situation.  Bill Harris left the SSP during the big reorganization a few weeks later; former astronaut Nancy Currie became the leader of a far more empowered SSP safety organization.

Mike Wetmore was the KSC Launch Processing Director.  All of the shuttle workers at KSC – both civil service and contractors – reported to Mike.  His background was in finance which was very useful to the program.  Mike is an articulate, thoughtful leader who has become a good friend of mine over the years.  Mike was with me at the SLF the morning that Columbia did not arrive.

Lambert Austin was the SSP Integration Manager.  A New Orleans native with a quick wit, Lambert is one of the hardest working individuals I know.  He was put in charge of an organization that should have been able to prevent the Columbia accident, but budgets had gutted the office and even though Lambert fought as hard as he could to prevent those cuts, he was still castigated by the CAIB unmercifully for not preventing the accident.  Lambert was replaced in the big reorganization by John Muratore, another old Flight Director colleague of mine that I have blogged about before.

David Martin was the MSFC Solid Rocket Booster Project Manager; responsible not for the actual rocket motor (that was Jody’s department) but for the control systems, hydraulics, parachutes, etc.  David was the next-newest member of the team.  While we worked together diligently in the return to flight, he played little role in the Columbia decisions.

Steve Brettle of the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi was on rotational assignment as an assistant to Ron Dittemore. 

Bob Cabana was the head of JSC’s Crew (Astronaut) Office.  A former Marine Corps Colonel, we worked together on several flights where he was an assigned crew member and I was a flight director.  Bob is a great leader and has moved up to be the Center Director at KSC.  He reluctantly agreed to the Columbia decisions.

Dorothy Rasco was member of the JSC business office; later on I promoted her to be the head of the office when I was Program Manager.

Jim Halsell is an astronaut, former USAF SR-71 pilot, and a very organized and articulate spokesman for the program.  He was at this SSP Council meeting as part of the accident response team; he had preceded me as SSP Launch Integration Manager at KSC and as such as chaired the STS-113 ET/SRB Mate review which had approved the recommendations about ET foam losses.  That is something that Jim has never forgotten.

Steve Doering was JSC EVA Project Office deputy; Steve has served several positions within JSC MOD and recently moved to management at MSFC.  Steve was not involved in the Columbia decision making.

Sandy Coleman was the oncoming MSFC ET Project Manager.  She had worked her way up through the ranks at MSFC starting as a secretary, earning an engineering degree, and becoming instrumental as we returned the shuttle to flight.  Sandy was not involved with the Columbia decisions.

Lee Norbraten of JSC was the head of the Shuttle Upgrades Office.  We expected to fly the shuttle for 20 more years so this was an important position.  Needless to say, that office was reorganized with new goals.  I had worked with Lee when he was a manager in MOD.  Lee was not involved with the Columbia decisions.

Joyce Rozewski of KSC was in charge of special projects involving improvements in production and safety.  She was not involved in the Columbia decisions.

There you have it; much of the key people in the Columbia accident.  I look at the crowd and see nothing but hard working, dedicated, thoughtful, competent individuals working as hard as they knew how to keep the space shuttles flying safely and successfully.

If such a disaster could happen to them, it could happen to you too.

Over the next several posts, I will try to tell the story of how that happened  as it appeared from my perspective.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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25 Responses to After Ten Years – Dramatis Personae Part 1

  1. Beth Webber says:

    You have set the stage well, Wayne. I look forward to learning more.

  2. Rod Wallace says:

    As you said Lambert and his organization took big hits for failure to prevent the loss, but element managers also failed in not understanding their hardware’s capability in terms of preventing debris and debris impact tolerance since foam loss started on STS-1 and continued to the end of the program. More than enought failures to go around.

  3. Dan Adamo says:

    Sorry for the trivia question, Wayne, but could you tell the more parochial among us Shuttle veterans where the SSP Management Council picture was taken?

    • waynehale says:

      Due to the beneficence of some friends, this particular council meeting was held at the Boulders resort in Phoenix Arizona. Several of the managers liked havin golf as the social activity. When it was my turn to pick I selected aviation museums such as the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola or the USAF museum in Dayton, Ohio. Didn’t really matter, the point was to get everybody face to face and away from the office.

  4. Steve Pemberton says:

    By pure serendipity today I was doing a Google search about Mission Control which was completely unrelated to this topic, and I happened across an article from February 27, 2008 about the Columbia Safety Exhibit, which had gone on display in the lobby of JSC’s headquarters building a day earlier (it was apparently later moved to the lobby of Mission Control.) The article pointed out that you spearheaded the project and it included a succinct and thoughtful message that you had sent to the JSC employees explaining the reason for the exhibit. According to the article the exhibit would eventually make stops at all of the NASA centers,

    I’ll stop here since I’m guessing that you may cover this in one of your upcoming essays, which like so many other people I am looking forward to with reverence and appreciation. Reverence for the subject matter, and appreciation that you have decided to share your recollections with us.

    • waynehale says:

      The Columbia safety exhibit is still at KSC, locked in the Columbia debris repository in the VAB. Some day I hope that it will travel again. It is powerful, and should be viewed by everybody involved in human space flight.

      • Calli Arcale says:

        I have recently found myself working at a supplier for one of the commercial companies vying to deliver crew to the ISS; yesterday, we had the big kickoff for our little piece of the project. It was exciting, and they talked about how the executives were even excited about it — I mean, it’s human spaceflight! It’s very awesome. But we can’t let our enthusiasm be the only thing guiding us. If that exhibit travels again, I hope that some of the non-NASA entities (SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, etc) get to look at that too. Lessons hard learned are best shared, so they don’t have to be learned that way again.

  5. Phil says:

    Wayne, I am really looking forward to your stories. I’m a detail guy, that’s what makes me interested. I am waiting for a quiet evening to read this post fully. I humbly make a request. Can you repost the picture cropped so we can see a better view of the people? I can barely see the faces, and it would be great to put faces to names. As you like.

  6. Phil says:

    Well Wayne, sorry I am such a doofus. clicking on the image shows the high resolution version, which can then be downloaded and cropped to the liking.

  7. Dave H. says:

    Wayne,

    I also look forward to your recollections. Speaking for myself, the biggest “change” happened last Saturday. My son Philip, who came into my ham shack that fateful morning to tell me Mom wanted to see me and that something was wrong with the Space Shuttle, is now a third-year engineering student.
    We moved him to the main campus.

    I kept journals of everything since that morning because I know that someday my memory will fade.

    While you and your team were searching for wisdom and a direction forward I was trying to figure out why my sleep was being consumed by lucid dreams of working in space.

    Funny, but as I’m typing “Ode to Billy Joe” is playing on the radio.

    Ten years have come and gone…

  8. Graham says:

    I remember the way Linda Ham was discussed unkindly in the aftermath. One thing that always struck me was that the first time I saw her was in a documentary about Discovery, from landing to flight, going over all the servicing and prep and so on. She talked about how she started just after Challenger. How all the big posters made her feel and how it made her realise “gotta be careful”. It was clear how deeply she felt those memories.

    • Alex says:

      Not deeply enough apparently. I hope Linda Ham sees the faces of that brave crew she let down every.single.night.

      • waynehale says:

        Its easy to throw stones from a distance. I’ve said it before and will say it again that I was present at most of the decision making meetings for STS-107 and agreed with Linda’s decisions based on the information at hand. If I had been in her seat, I would have made the same decisions that she did. If you read this whole series then I hope you will get an understanding of why we all made these decisions Hindsight is 20-20. Learning from other folks mistakes so you don’t repeat them is the purpose of the discussion here. Linda got a lot more of the blame than the rest of us, but believe me, we are just as culpable, maybe more so. I hope you never find yourself regretting a decision that you unwisely made.

  9. Zak McKracken says:

    Just one remark from someone who’s interested but not familiar with NASA’s internal organisation: Could you please create an abbreviation index or something similar? SSP (space shuttle program) I get. KSC, MSFC, JSC … what? who?

    • waynehale says:

      The NASA acronym list could be endless. In fact, I have a two-volume desk set (now sadly out of date) of official NASA acronyms. For the basics, remember that there are 10 NASA centers, and I will reference them frequentsly: KSC – Kennedy Space Center in Florida where we launched the shuttles, JSC – Johnson Space Center in Houston where Mission Control lives, MSFC – Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL where they develop the big rocket engines, and DFRC – Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert, CA where the shuttle sometimes landed.

      • Zak McKracken says:

        Thanks for the explanation! Of the NASA centers, I’m was only familiar with LaRC (Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia), and they don’t do space, afaik…

      • waynehale says:

        Oh yes, Langley does space. We relied on them heavily to help return the shuttle to flight. Known mostly for their aeronautical research, they do space as well.

  10. no one of consequence says:

    Many don’t tell their remeniscence because of fear of misperception, of getting things possibly wrong. Some, don’t update/revise for similar reasons. However, with repeated remembering, sometimes prodded by others perspectives, a surprisingly accurate perspective can emerge … especially when all have had the perspective of history. This is a very good thing to happen, because memory provokes memory, in a chaotic, nonlinear way. Not top down like program management.

    Because we might get more details, especially of the subjective nature this way. So, if you dare accept advice from a humble anonymous internet icon, don’t get locked in but instead add revisions as they occur to entries as more emerges from other(s) / memory / record. The mindset of incident review makes for an effective process for getting at root cause as desired, but doesn’t often assist in capturing the human dimension that often gets in the way.

    Let the historians later accept the responsibility of piecing together what may be seen as truth. Just give them (and us, and most of all your grandson) more perspective to work with.

    We’re grateful for it.

  11. Your blog is fascinating, thank you for sharing this with us. I had always come away with the impression that Linda Ham was the ‘villain of the piece’ and look forward to an insider’s view of the events which no-doubt will be much more complete and complicated than the simplistic view that was taken by the media at the time.

    • waynehale says:

      The media, and to a certain degree the public, is looking for a simplistic answer. They like stories with easily identified good guys and bad guys. That is wrong. I know Linda well and she has been unfairly vilified. If I had been in her position, I would have made the same decisions in the same way. If we are to learn from this disaster, we have to delve deeper and find out the more subtle reasons why it occurred, not rely on simplistic sound bite journalism.

  12. Yusef A. Johnson says:

    What a day that was. The only reason I got into the MCC was that I walked in with Linda Ham. She took too much of the brunt. I’m sure it had an impact on her family life.

    Space Shuttle Upgrades…smh…if they would’ve only let us go through with it. The paperweights that I got from Anne Martt make great conversation pieces. I have a number 3 and an I/O RESET button. On it they say:”CAU:The Best Project in The Agency”. At least a little bit of that work made it on board in the Bearing Display.

    Acronyms? I thought NASA was bad until I started working for the Navy!! UGH!

  13. Thomas Luedeke says:

    I just ran into this. As an engineer and after having read much of the Columbia post-accident assessments, I do not agree with your assessment of the team (although I have great admiration for you pursuing DoD imaging outside the chain of command.

    There were no good safety reasons why the imaging should *not* have been done. At worst, it would have been superfluous. At a minimum, more information would have been obtained.

    To be blunt, Ham actively denied the DoD imaging of the Columbia wing multiple times, for reasons that could (most charitably) be described as political. She should have been fired, along with a number of other administrators, as her judgment was unbelievably poor. It disgusts me that she is back in charge of major NASA programs now.

    • waynehale says:

      You need to read my post “Too Little – Too Late” from last year. No heroes at this location my friend.

      There must be some deep psycho-sociological reason why we feel the need to identify a villain who caused disaster. As I have said many times over, there are no villains here, just deeply dedicated people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances.

      Rather than assign blame, I wish that readers would reflect on their own experiences and how close they have come to disaster and how narrow is the line between glorious success and ignominious tragedy. The only purpose in my writing is to provide a cautionary tale which may just cause some future decision maker to have second thoughts, take a second look, and thereby avoid catastrophy. Those who are looking for villains have not learned the lesson properly.

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