After Ten Years: Too Little, Too Late

First the official disclaimer: I can neither confirm nor deny that other national agencies might or might not have had capabilities that could have helped NASA during the last flight of Columbia.

The fact of the matter is that in January 2003 I had never had a security clearance of the type to let me know anything about such matters. We had all had low level clearances during the DoD flights of the late 80’s, which were allowed to lapse. Some Flight Directors had low level security clearances but these were almost never used. There were rumors, innuendos, lies, and tall tales told during the post flight parties or other occasions about what might be out there, but I never actually saw any evidence of anything. That is where things stood in January 2003.

After the MLK holiday weekend, I traveled back to Florida, to continue my preparation to be the Space Shuttle Program Launch Integration Manager fully trained and in place for February 1. I was to spend that short work week in Florida, and the next week closing out any lingering assignments in Houston before driving back to Florida to start my permanent assignment Jan 30 & 31.

As I recall we had two MMTs that week; Tuesday morning and Friday morning. I participated by teleconference from KSC.

It was midmorning Wednesday January 22 when Lambert Austin called me. Lambert was the Manager of the Space Shuttle Systems Integration office, a senior position in the program based at JSC. The conversation was pretty short; Lambert said that several of his people wanted more information about possible damage to the left wing of Columbia. He thought that the DoD might have some ways to get that information. Would I please contact the DoD and see what they could do? I told him that I would do what I could.

It was much much later before I questioned why Lambert – who certainly had the authority and contacts – did not make the request himself. His position in the organization was the same level as the position that I was in training to take over – he was official and I wasn’t yet there.

First I called Dave Phillips down at Patrick AFB. He was the NASA/DoD liaison for all things related to launch, range safety, search and rescue, etc. I described the situation to him and asked him to pass along the request to do whatever they could to get us more information.

About an hour later, I realized that the right way to make such a request was through the Mission Control Center in Houston. So I called the MOD console and talked with my old colleague Phil Engelauf. Some weeks later we talked about that call; my intention was to tell Phil to make the request; Phil heard that I was asking his opinion about making such a request. As it turns out Phil did not pass the request along. I thought he did.

Later in the afternoon, Linda Ham called me. I don’t know how the news traveled to her, but she heard that I had initiated a request for help and information from the DoD. She told me that she had checked and ‘nobody’ had a ‘requirement’ for more information (see my previous post on ‘The Tyranny of Requirements’). She asked me to terminate the request for information.

Much later on, I found out that Linda had contacted three fairly senior managers and none of those three had any interest in more information. Where and how the desire for more information died in the various management chains is probably a long story. During the investigation many engineers said they had requested more information but those requests never made it to the top.

After I hung up the phone with Linda, I found that I was mad. I don’t like to be overruled (who does) but this was unusual. I was very tempted to ignore her direction and let the requests stand. I went out of the office into the third floor hall at KSC HQ and paced up and down for several minutes. Finally I reluctantly decided to follow her instructions. I went back into my office, called Dave Phillips first, then Phil Engelauf. I told them to stand down on any request for more information from the DoD.

As I explained in my last post, it wouldn’t have made any difference. If there were some magical way to find out Columbia’s status, a week after launch it was too late. The best case scenario – which had virtually no chance of succeeding – would only have worked if action had been taken on the second or third day of the flight; by the sixth day it was too late.

For the rest of the week, whenever I was in my office, I listened to the air-to-ground and flight director squawk boxes. Lead Flight Director Kelly Beck was leading a very successful and complex science mission. Rick Husband and the entire crew seemed to handling everything in stride.

Kelly Beck had been the best Ascent Guidance and Procedures officer I ever had on any of my 27 ascent teams. She knew all the emergency and contingency procedures to save the crew during an ascent abort, no matter how many problems the sim team put on us. When it was time to select new flight directors I encouraged her to apply and then lobbied for her selection. After she was certified as an orbit Flight Director, I asked if she wanted to enter the Ascent/Entry Flight Director training. To my surprise she turned me down; the responsibility was too great she said; too much chance of losing a crew during those phases. STS-107 was her first assignment as lead orbit flight director and she got as close to the crew as any flight director in the office.

At the end of the week I flew back to Houston. No MMTs were held that next weekend either. I would go to my first MMT meeting in person at JSC on Monday January 27. Even though we did not know it, all options were behind us at that point.

Years later, a senior NASA official told me that after the accident, I was picked to be the new Deputy Program Manager because I asked for help during the mission. If true, that is the saddest comment of all. A handful of phone calls one Wednesday in January, started, then stopped. Too little, too late.

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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16 Responses to After Ten Years: Too Little, Too Late

  1. fireandair says:

    1) Every time I read one of these I have to fight an urge to look up all of the people involved in this and give you all a cup of hot chocolate and a hug. I know, stupid. Still. There’s always this fierce sense of affection and protectiveness that springs up whenever I think of anyone involved with NASA or human spaceflight. I know it doesn’t really help.

    2) I dream someday of having people who understand human behavior in situations like this read this sort of thing — really read it and process it as data — and somehow design a workflow that will compensate for the inevitable human tendencies that always mushroom into program failures. Considering humans as simply added components prone to occasional failures, what the hell can be done to design a failure-proof workflow? Is there any such thing, or is human behavior so flexible that it will always somehow find a new and unpredictable failure mode? Honestly though, the only thing that always shakes me out of this dream is the deep conviction that, as a science, psychology is pretty much at the stage of dowsing and witch-doctoring.

  2. jimhillhouse says:

    Wayne,

    I know that I speak for a great many when I write how much I appreciate your account and the honesty in it. Your posts are as riveting as they are educational.

  3. Andrew W says:

    Interesting article at wiki on Linda Ham’s role in this tragedy:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linda_Ham#Columbia_disaster_and_investigation_report

    Maybe it’s too simplistic, but I think some people have a tendency to place their own careers on a higher plane than the welfare of the organisation of which they’re a part, other people see their own best interests as being intimately linked to the welfare of the organisation that they’re a part of.

    Can I add my thanks Wayne for this series of posts on Columbia’s last flight, it’s obviously an important (understatement) part of your life.

    • waynehale says:

      Linda is one of the hardest working, smartest people that I know and in her place I would have done exactly what she did. Think long and hard before you sit in judgement.

      • Andrew W says:

        I don’t doubt her intelligence, or her hard work. You would have quashed attempts to gather further information on the damage to the wing?

      • akismet-df65d69ec35e73390ddd0e6a2c335737 says:

        Andrew M.,

        I’m a private pilot. In the course of getting my license, I was trained to deal with engine-failure, fire, electrical issues, etc., in other words the things that could bring down a plane and me with it. But the first time you are in a situation, brought-on by a culmination of otherwise reasonable decisions that then bring you to a place where one action means success and then other failure, its just hanger-talk to say that you’d do it better than that other “numbskull”. The more reasonable approach is to study the mistakes of the past, humbly hope you’ll handle it better, and utter the Shepard’s Prayer when you find yourself in a similar situation.

      • akismet-df65d69ec35e73390ddd0e6a2c335737 says:

        Sorry, I meant to address my reply to Andrew W.

      • Dave H. says:

        It’s not so much about thinking, Wayne, as it is about examining the evidence and letting it tell the story.
        You have given us far more information than was publicly available in 2003. I believe that your writing this story is agenda-free, and have drawn the conclusion that there are no ogres in Mission Control, no callous disregard for astronauts’ lives, only an adherance to a way of life which had guaranteed success in the past.

        But…as the fine print in the ads says, “past performance is not indicative of future results”.

        On a lighter note, while I was reading this the radio was playing “We Don’t Get Fooled Again”.

        Onward we go…

  4. Wayne, just wanted to say thanks for posting. I look forward to each and every post. Your humility as an engineer is noteworthy in a field full of hubris…my own included. There is a lot to be learned here that goes far beyond spaceflight. I hope others take the time to read and internalize these posts.
    If you find yourself in Seattle, look me up. You have a lunch on me with your name on it. :)

  5. jabtano says:

    Amazing really, we always can look back and think of the what if’s. What was lost what was gained. space flight is dangerous, there is always going to be incidents of failure. those few incidents do result in positive changes, It is also sad that after all the years and money spent that this nation no longer has a manned flight program that we now have to rely on Russia to place people on the space station. Perhaps we had it wrong all this time by going with the shuttle rather than moving forward manned rocket programs Amazing reads none the less.

  6. Beth Webber says:

    Compelling and painful to read, Wayne. Thank you for having the courage to share it as you lived it.

  7. BenP says:

    What struck me in reading both the CAIB report and confirmed by the blog was that there was no formal written request for additional imagery or data (DoD or any other source) made by either operations or engineering, in other words no “chit” was written. Chits are documented data exchanges, or requests for data, that are made during real-time between MOD and other organizations, and are recorded in the Mission Action Request Tracking System. Although no guarantee that a chit would have resulted in getting additional data, all chits must be formally evaluated and dispositioned by all organizations represented at the MMT, and at the very least could have prevented the disconnect among people and organizations in understanding the implications of the damage, and the efforts in getting additional data. There may have been grumbles that getting such data was outside of NASA’s scope or capabilities, but by putting the request in a chit it would have required a community response as opposed to the ambiguity that existed for several days after launch. This was a “lesson learned” for me for future flights, and I made every effort to ensure that all data requests went thru the chit route as opposed to phone calls and emails. I was surprised that this was not addressed directly in the CAIB recommendations or NASA response, although communications in general was identified as an issue.

    • Dave H. says:

      This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would
      do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

      Copied from http://www.columbia.edu.

  8. lunarrover says:

    As I read bold hopes published for Mars travel I hope these writers read your posts. Most proposals for Lunar or Mars travel lack a reasonable emergency procedure. The distances they propose are vastly greater than any previous missions and will require hard planning. For Apollo 13 there was an alternative vehicle attached. It is a long way to a gas station between here and Mars. Contingency planning has to advance beyond the shuttle era, and the human management side is even more important than the crew and vehicle preparations. Your account should be a cornerstone of future mission planning.

    • Calli Arcale says:

      I rather think that they will require not just hard planning but also hard choices. Apollo 13 did not *really* have much of an alternative; the LEM was there already, and although it could (barely) provide enough life support to get them back to Earth and enough propulsion to make the necessary engine burns, it was no substitute for the CMs reentry capabilities. It gets called a lifeboat, but I think this fails to fully appreciate how dire the situation really was. It was *less* than a lifeboat, in this circumstance. As Columbia’s situation demonstrated, LEO rescue is hard enough — it’s just barely theoretically not insane to consider that Atlantis might’ve been able to rescue the Columbia crew, had they know of the need by day 2. An Apollo rescue would have been even less likely. And a Mars rescue? Totally impossible. The best you could hope for is enough redundancy in the systems to cover most of your failure modes.

      And really, that’s not too different from what sea exploration for the Polynesians would’ve been like, in the beginning. Sailing off into the unknown. You’re either successful, or you are never seen again.

      • David Seidel says:

        This conversation nicely highlights the responsible contingency planning that has to go into any spaceflight. There needs to be overlapping abort mode coverage assuming a minimal set of available resources at any point in the flight. For a deep space mission almost every abort is going to be ‘shelter in place’ as long as the minimal set of life sustaining resources are accessible. There will be a lot of variables but, just as the LM lifeboat scenario had been considered in advance, a crew can have some confidence that not all failures are lethal.

        Be careful, though, with Polynesian analogies. Many people are saddled with misconceptions perpetuated by Thor Heyerdahl who, with voyages on sailing rafts, notably the Kon-Tiki, made from traditional materials, demonstrated that ancient peoples could make sea voyages across vast ocean stretches and populate remote islands.

        He perpetuated this one-way succeed-or-die model of expansion. But that’s not how the Polynesians settled the Pacific. They built voyaging canoes, like the Hokule’a, which could sail into the wind, which Kon-Tiki could not. So they departed from regions like New Guinea and sailed to the extent that their resources allowed and then sailed home to try again, not merely bobbing corks at the whim of current and wind. They took advantage of technology to extend their voyages and ultimately met with success.

        So what does this have to do with space exploration? Well, we culturally do not endorse suicide missions as an exploration strategy. Sorry Thor. Depots and In-Situ Resource Utilization will pave the way for the really next great human exploration, Mars, since humans won’t leave Earth until what they will need upon arrival is already there. It will be possible to plan the trip to include adequate margins to provide robust abort modes and high chance of survivability scenarios, if that is designed in at the start.

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