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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55 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:


    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.

  14. I was agreeing with Thomas Luedeke, not Wayne.

    In the US there is only one responsibility it seems, to keep climbing the ladder, nobody in management wants to go anywhere near the work they did for whatever qualification they claim to hold.

    I speak from experience in the electronics industry across this planet, nobody is as uncommitted as the US engineer, it was clear to me that I had to do it or else it wouldn’t get done.

    Not bashing for the sake of it, LH’s actions were not political, they were personal, her ego was bruised at the thought that someone dared go above her head. In fact, someone had only asked HOW they should go about such a request. Read the records for context, nobody asked for photographs, they asked for procedural guidance as to how to make such a request.

    The refusal to assign responsibility only leads to yet another catastrophe as the system once again settles into complacency.


    • waynehale says:

      Sigh. It didn’t happen that way. I apologize for doing such a poor job of describing the people and their motivations that the narrative allows for inaccurate conclusions

      • Richard Tibbitts says:

        In other words, people who don’t agree with you have come to inaccurate conclusions. Stop being an apologist, if you can.

      • waynehale says:

        I’m always mindful of the verse ‘For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. ‘

      • rtjsite says:

        I’m not relying on whatever you’re describing because I went through acres of reading about how people were responding to the situation they were in. Linda Hamm stuck out like a sore thumb – she kept looking for the identity of the person(s) responsible for the DOD imaging requests. There weren’t any, from what I read their first discussion was about how to proceed with such an inquiry, ie who they should approach. By the time LH – who didn’t work that weekend – got hold of it, far from applying her attention to the merits of such action, she was far more concerned with whoever had the temerity to make such a request, because that was her responsibility. In multiple conversations her priority was identifying the source of this suggestion, not the merits of such action. There was no other way to read her motives, when the first response from her was always ‘WHO?’ She should have been handed her rear end, not shuffled via the old boys network into another position where she could endanger lives with her twisted priorities.

  15. LUIS MARTINEZ says:

    Columbia proved NASA managers didn’t learn a thing from the chain of errors that caused Challenger. Safety can never take a back seat to individuals who fear disagreeing with their bosses or afraid of going outside the chain of command. Safety first must become more than just a poster at NASA.

  16. MarkusWX says:

    Absent first hand information, I incline to agree with Wayne that Linda Ham was scapegoated. Of course, her abilities are not in doubt; she holds degrees in mathematics, applied science and astronautics among others. Her intellect, grasp of detail and decisiveness were no doubt impressive. As were, I suspect, a certain brusqueness, a tendency to be formidable in conversation and a physiognomic aspect that could be intimidating at times. That is only an impression, but I’ve encountered similar types working for a large organization.
    I agree with her statement that no one person was responsible for the loss of the ship and crew. That rarely if ever is the case, and most accidents are a result of a chain of causes. I do remain uncomfortable with her assertion that she didn’t even know where the request for photo intelligence on the wing damage came from. That seems a bureaucratic dodge of the first order.

    • waynehale says:

      You clearly have not read the rest of my blog series on this subject. Read especially the entry entitled ‘Too Little, Too Late’

    • rtjsite says:

      Linda Hamms’ priorities were making a hole in the management structure and defending it tooth and claw to retain her ‘rights to the responsibility’.

      Read the documents, make up your own mind what LH is pursuing – is it a witch-hunt for the ‘insolent’ engineer who’s making her decisions for her? She kept asking, kept trying to extract a name.

      Scapegoated is an odd reading of not facing up to her own responsibilities, working the problem not her petty ego itches.

      Clearly others saw this too.

      • waynehale says:

        This is not what I experienced. When Linda asked ‘who has a requirement’ the emphasis is on ‘requirement’ not really on ‘who’. Read my blog post ‘the tyranny of requirements’.

  17. MarkusWX says:

    Wayne, I’m not sure how you inferred that I did not read it, but the dismissive tone is enough for me. Despite my interest in the topic, I’m afraid that this second post will also be my last. Even so, I thank you for your insight on aspects of NASA from the inside,

  18. MarkusWX says:

    Wayne, in that case I will risk a third post and say thanks again for your insights. In any complex organization, particularly one in which mistakes can result in death, we should all take to heart your ten Enduring Lessons. To me, the most important is ‘Speak Up’. Another time, I could relate a chance meeting that illustrated how the Apollo One fire resulted from decisions to forbid speaking up about the design of that capsule.

  19. Richard Tibbitts says:

    How can you exonerate Linda Ham? It was her decision to quash any investigation into or to take a look at the shuttle’s left-wing leading edge. She was not the only bad actor by any means, but you’re a company man, through and through, so of course you’re going to defend her. She was the chairwoman of the Mission Management Team, and her decision sealed Columbia’s fate. NASA management killed those astronauts as surely as if they had fired a shotgun at point-blank range. Engineers mention dangerous possibilites, but bureaucrats seldom listen.

    Perhaps you don’t remember the brouhaha that ensued the night before the Challenger launch, when, confronted with the erosion of the O-rings from a previous launch at fifty degrees Fahrenheit, NASA management had their eyes on the big prize of launching regardless of an outside temperature of twenty-eight degrees. “My God, Thiokol!” said Lawrence Mulloy, shuttle program manager. “When do you want us to launch – next April?” He later claimed he opposed the Thiokol engineers’ decision because it was illogical. Holy crap, Batman! Those engineers were professionals who dealt in logic.. Talk about shirking your responsibility. But what can you expect
    from people who don’t always deal with reality. If something doesn’t correspond with management’s opinion, it’s either wrong, misguided, or doesn’t exist.

    Sorry, dude, but you’re in denial.

    By the way, the following sentence contains a common mistake.

    “But the MSFC guys were reticent to weigh in on Orbiter problems.” No, they were reluctant. Reticent means inclined to be incommunicative, yes, but reluctant would be correct here. You might look up the difference.

    • waynehale says:

      Richard, your comments echo those of many others. I can only report, honestly I hope, my experiences and reflections on those events I lived through fifteen years ago now. I hope you read the rest of the series ‘after ten years’ and especially the post entitled ‘too little, too late’. If you want to explore the Challenger launch decision, I highly recommend Dr. Diane Vaughn’s book with that title.

      Meanwhile, I appreciate your motivation to improve my vocabulary choices but I still prefer ‘reticent’ over ‘reluctant’.

    • rtjsite says:

      Yes, if a dodgy Brit like me can find and read descriptions of the Monday morning reactions of LH on hearing about the engineers concerns, then why can’t others?

      This isn’t just a bashing exercise, but I got angry at the Challenger response which I saw mirrored in this disaster, I can’t imagine how the families must feel if they read the same accounts that I read.

      I’ll try to find them.

    • waynehale says:

      So Paul Shack and Trish Petite hold as much responsibility as Linda Ham. It’s interesting, after 15 years, that Trish Petite is head of Safety at JSC.

      • rtjsite says:

        What a bizarre notion.

        Reality – a quote from LH:

        “I really can’t find the source (of the request), so I don’t think we need to pursue this.”

      • rtjsite says:

        From the article:

        ‘Members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board — who stumbled across Ham’s comments when they listened to tape recordings of the mission management meetings — privately describe them as “chilling” or “outrageous” in light of what the board concluded was NASA’s missed opportunity to try to save the crew.’

        ‘Chilling’ is a word used, another is ‘outrageous’ – and to address your suggestion, ALL persons involved in blocking qualified engineers’ valid input SHOULD be removed from positions where they prove themselves unwilling or unable to listen to such input.

        Challenger begat Columbia because NASA changed NOTHING that could have saved Columbia – allowing management to over-rule engineers destroys the system as designed, and renders those engineers worthless.

        LH may be the best thing since sliced bread, but not in the position she held.

      • rtjsite says:

        Another quote:

        ‘To his everlasting regret, Hale – who initially pursued the request for satellite photos – ultimately came down on the side of mission-management team leader Linda Ham, who nixed the pictures.

        Hale grows quiet when asked if the episode was a good lesson in his new role as Ham’s replacement: “It’s a lesson that was too dear to learn … the price was too high.”‘

        Why did WH not speak up?

      • rtjsite says:


        Over and over, a projector at one end of a long, pale-blue conference room in Building 13 of the Johnson Space Center showed a piece of whitish foam breaking away from the space shuttle Columbia’s fuel tank and bursting like fireworks as it struck the left wing.

        In twos and threes, engineers at the other end of the cluttered room drifted away from their meeting and watched the repetitive, almost hypnotic images with deep puzzlement: because of the camera angle, no one could tell exactly where the foam had hit.

        It was Tuesday, Jan. 21, five days after the foam had broken loose during liftoff, and some 30 engineers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its aerospace contractors were having the first formal meeting to assess potential damage when it struck the wing.

        Virtually every one of the participants — those in the room and some linked by teleconference — agreed that the space agency should immediately get images of the impact area, perhaps by requesting them from American spy satellites or powerful telescopes on the ground.

        They elected one of their number, a soft-spoken NASA engineer, Rodney Rocha, to convey the idea to the shuttle mission managers.

        Mr. Rocha said he tried at least half a dozen times to get the space agency to make the requests. There were two similar efforts by other engineers. All were turned aside. Mr. Rocha (pronounced ROE-cha) said a manager told him that he refused to be a ”Chicken Little.”

        The Columbia’s flight director, LeRoy Cain, wrote a curt e-mail message that concluded, ”I consider it to be a dead issue.”

        New interviews and newly revealed e-mail sent during the fatal Columbia mission show that the engineers’ desire for outside help in getting a look at the shuttle’s wing was more intense and widespread than what was described in the Aug. 26 final report of the board investigating the Feb. 1 accident, which killed all seven astronauts aboard.

        The new information makes it clear that the failure to follow up on the request for outside imagery, the first step in discovering the damage and perhaps mounting a rescue effort, did not simply fall through bureaucratic cracks but was actively, even hotly resisted by mission managers.

        The report did not seek to lay blame on individual managers but focused on physical causes of the accident and the ”broken safety culture” within NASA that allowed risks to be underplayed. But Congress has opened several lines of inquiry into the mission, and holding individuals accountable is part of the agenda.

        In interviews with numerous engineers, most of whom have not spoken publicly until now, the discord between NASA’s engineers and managers stands out in stark relief.

        Mr. Rocha, who has emerged as a central figure in the 16 days of the Columbia’s flight, was a natural choice of his fellow engineers as a go-between on the initial picture request. He had already sent an e-mail message to the shuttle engineering office asking if the astronauts could visually inspect the impact area through a small window on the side of the craft. And as Mr. Rocha was chief engineer in Johnson Space Center’s structural engineering division and a man with a reputation for precision and integrity, his words were likely to carry great weight.

        ”I said, ‘Yes, I’ll give it a try,’ ” he recalled in mid-September, in the course of five hours of recent interviews at a hotel near the space center.

        In its report, the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board spoke of Mr. Rocha, 52, as a kind of NASA Everyman — a typical engineer who suspected that all was not well with the Columbia but could not save it.

        ”He’s an average guy as far as personality, but as far as his engineering skills, he’s a very, very detail-oriented guy,” said Dan Diggins, who did many of the interviews for the report’s chapter on the space agency’s decision-making during the flight and wrote that chapter’s first draft before it was reworked and approved by the board. Never in hours of interviews did Mr. Diggins find a contradiction between Mr. Rocha’s statements and facts established by other means, he said.

        Mr. Rocha’s experience provides perhaps the clearest and most harrowing view of a NASA safety culture that, the board says, must be fixed if the remaining shuttles are to continue flying.

        Early Love With Shuttle

        Alan Rodney Rocha loved the Columbia long before it was lost. In August 1978, as a young NASA engineer, he took his first business trip for the agency to Palmdale, Calif., where the still unfinished Columbia sat in a hangar among the Joshua trees, awaiting its first mission.

        Working from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. each night, he had the job of climbing into the orbiter’s wheel well, through the fuselage and among the labyrinth of tubes, wires, struts and partitions in the right wing, to check that each of 200 strain gauges were just where the plans said they should be. And the Columbia took its place in his heart.

        ”I felt so privileged to be there,” he said.

        The Columbia took its maiden flight in 1981; five years later its sister vessel the Challenger was lost with its crew of seven when O-ring seals in one of the solid rocket boosters failed in the launching, severing a strut connecting the booster to the shuttle’s external fuel tank.

        For Mr. Rocha, the Columbia disaster began on the eve of its final liftoff. That afternoon, he and other engineers were stunned to learn of new tests at a NASA laboratory showing that a ring attaching the rocket boosters to the external tank had not met minimum strength requirements. As he watched, managers hastily considered the problem at a prelaunching meeting beginning at 12:10 a.m. on Jan. 16.

        Instead of halting the launching on the spot, Mr. Rocha said, the shuttle manager, Linda Ham, granted a temporary waiver that reduced the strength requirements, on the basis of data that the investigation board later found to be flawed. Mr. Rocha would draw on an old rocketry term — ”launch fever” — to describe what had happened at the meeting.

        The launching went ahead that Thursday morning. The ring held, but an unrelated problem turned up when insulating foam tore away from an attachment to the external tank 81.7 seconds after liftoff and struck the orbiter’s left wing.

        Mr. Rocha said that when he learned of the foam strike in a phone call on Friday afternoon, he gasped. All weekend he watched the video loop showing the strike, and at 11:24 p.m. on Sunday, he sent an e-mail message to the manager of the shuttle engineering office, Paul Shack, suggesting that the astronauts simply take a look at the impact area.

        Mr. Shack never responded. But by Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Rocha was showing the loop to the so-called debris assessment team at the meeting in Building 13, where he had his own office. As arresting as the images were, the team agreed, they were too sketchy to draw conclusions without new images.

        To engineers familiar with the situation, the request was an easy call. ”We all had an intense interest in getting photos,” said Steven Rickman, a NASA engineer whose staff members served on the assessment team. ”As engineers, they’re always going to want more information.”

        In his second e-mail appeal for satellite imagery, Mr. Rocha wrote in boldface to Mr. Shack and other managers, ”Can we petition (beg) for outside agency assistance?”

        But Mr. Rocha did not know that the strange politics of the NASA culture had already been set in motion. Calvin Schomburg, a veteran engineer who was regarded as an expert on the shuttle’s thermal protection system — though his expertise was in heat-resisting tiles, not the reinforced carbon-carbon that protected the wings’ leading edges — had been reassuring shuttle managers, Mr. Diggins said. Mr. Schomburg either ”sought them out or the managers sought him out to ask his opinion,” Mr. Diggins said.

        Whether because of Mr. Schomburg’s influence or because managers simply had no intention of taking the extraordinary step of asking another agency to obtain images, Mr. Rocha’s request soon found its way into a bureaucratic dead end.

        On Wednesday, an official Mr. Schomburg had spoken to — Ms. Ham, the chairwoman of the mission management team — canceled Mr. Rocha’s request and two similar requests from other engineers associated with the mission, according to the investigation board. Late that day, Mr. Shack informed Mr. Rocha of management’s decision not to seek images.

        Astonished, Mr. Rocha sent an e-mail message asking why. Receiving no answer, he phoned Mr. Shack, who said, ”I’m not going to be Chicken Little about this,” Mr. Rocha recalled.

        ”Chicken Little?” Mr. Rocha said he shouted back. ”The program is acting like an ostrich with its head in the sand.”

        Mr. Shack, Mr. Schomburg and Ms. Ham declined to comment for this article or did not respond to detailed requests for interviews relayed through the space agency’s public affairs office.

        On the day he talked with Mr. Shack, Mr. Rocha wrote an anguished e-mail message that began, ”In my humble technical opinion, this is the wrong (and bordering on irresponsible) answer.” He said his finger hovered over the ”send” key, but he did not push the button. Instead, he showed the draft message to a colleague, Carlisle Campbell, an engineer.

        ”I said, ‘Rodney, that’s a significant document,’ ” Mr. Campbell said in an interview. ”I probably got more concerned or angry than he did at the time. We could not believe what was going on.”

        But Mr. Rocha still decided he should push his concerns through official channels. Engineers were often told not to send messages much higher than their own rung in the ladder, he said.

        Taking the Issue Higher

        The next day, Mr. Rocha spoke with Barbara Conte, a worker in mission operations, about spy telescopes. In a written response to reporters’ questions, Ms. Conte said her colleague ”was more keyed-up and troubled than I had ever previously encountered him.”

        That day, she and another NASA employee, Gregory Oliver, took the issue to Mr. Cain, the Columbia’s flight director for landing, at an unrelated meeting.

        ”We informed LeRoy of the concern from Rodney” and offered to help arrange an observation by military satellites, Mr. Oliver wrote on March 6 — a month after the accident — in a previously unreleased e-mail chronology of shuttle events. The message continued, ”LeRoy said he would go talk to Linda Ham and get back to us.”

        About two hours later, at 12:07 p.m. that day, Mr. Cain sent out his own e-mail message saying he had spoken with management officials, who had no interest in obtaining the images. Therefore, Mr. Cain wrote, ”I consider it to be a dead issue.”

        It was not over for Mr. Rocha, though. On Thursday afternoon, Jan. 23, he encountered Mr. Schomburg, the expert on the heat-resisting tiles, on the sixth floor of Building 1, where most of the managers had offices. They sat down in the anteroom of an office and began arguing about the need for imaging, said Mr. Rocha and the investigative board’s report.

        Mr. Schomburg insisted that because smaller pieces of foam had broken off and struck shuttles on previous flights without dire consequences, the latest strike would require nothing more than a refurbishment after the Columbia landed. Mr. Rocha maintained that the damage could be severe enough to allow hot gases to burn through the wing on re-entry and threaten the craft.

        As their voices rose, Mr. Rocha recalled, Mr. Schomburg thrust out an index finger and said, ”Well, if it’s that bad, there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.”

        On Jan. 24, eight days into the mission, engineers and managers held a series of meetings in which the debris strike was discussed. At a 7 a.m. meeting, Boeing engineers presented their analysis, which they said showed that the shuttle probably took the hit without experiencing fatal damage.

        Those results were hastily carried into the 8 a.m. meeting of the mission management team, led by Ms. Ham. When a NASA engineer presented the results of the Boeing analysis and then began to discuss the lingering areas of uncertainty, Ms. Ham cut him off and the meeting moved along. The wing discussion does not even appear in the official minutes.

        Mr. Diggins, the accident board investigator, said it should not be surprising that such a critical issue received short shrift. A mission management meeting, he said, is simply ”an official pro forma meeting to get it on the record.” The decision to do nothing more, he said, had long been made.

        By then, Mr. Rocha said, he decided to go along. ”I lost the steam, the power drive to have a fight, because I just wasn’t being supported,” he said. ”And I had faith in the abilities of our team.”

        He waited through the weekend until the Boeing engineers closed out the last bit of their analysis, and on Sunday, Jan. 26, he wrote a congratulatory e-mail message to colleagues, saying the full analysis showed no ”safety of flight” risk. ”This very serious case could not be ruled out and it was a very good thing we carried it through to a finish,” he wrote.

        But his anxiety quickly spiked again. He slept poorly. Mr. Diggins said, ”I think that what was gnawing away at him was that he didn’t have enough engineering data to settle the question he had in his mind.” With days to go in the mission, Mr. Rocha continued to discuss the possibility of damage with Mr. Campbell, the expert in landing gear.

        ”He started coming by my desk every day,” Mr. Campbell recalled. ”He was trying to be proper and go through his management,” he said, but ”he was too nice about it, because he’s a gentleman; he didn’t get nasty about the problem.”

        Being There for Re-entry

        On Feb. 1, the last day of the Columbia’s flight, Mr. Rocha rose before dawn. He wanted to be in the mission evaluation room, an engineering monitoring center on the first floor of NASA’s Building 30, by 6:45 a.m., well before the shuttle fired its rockets to drop out of orbit. Normally, he would just watch the landing on NASA-TV, the space agency’s channel, but he said he wanted to see the data from the wing sensors.

        The room was jammed with people and computers. There was a pervasively upbeat mood.

        Before long, things began to go wrong — and in the ways that Mr. Rocha had feared. The scrolling numbers giving temperature readings for the left and right wings began to diverge. Then, at 7:54 a.m., four temperature sensors on the left wing’s wheel well failed.

        In fact, the hole that the foam had punched into the wing 16 days before had been allowing the superheated gases of re-entry to torch through the structure for some several minutes, and observers on the ground had already seen bright flashes and pieces shedding from the damaged craft.

        As the number of alarming sensor readings quickly mounted, ”I started getting the sick feeling,” Mr. Rocha said, pointing to his stomach. He looked up from the fog of fear and saw another engineer, Joyce Seriale-Grush, in tears. He approached her and she said, ”We’ve lost communication with the crew.”

        Mr. Rocha did the only thing he could think of: He called his wife. ”I want you to say some prayers for us right now,” he said. ”Things aren’t good.” Finally, they got word that observers on the ground had seen the shuttle break up over Texas.

        Emergency plans came out of binders; engineers locked their doors to outsiders and began to store data from the flight for the inevitable investigation. Frank Benz, the Johnson Space Center director of engineering, and his assistant, Laurie Hansen, came in. Mr. Rocha recalled that Ms. Hansen, trying to console him, said, ”Oh, Rodney, we lost people, and there’s probably nothing we could have done.”

        For the third time in two weeks, Mr. Rocha raised his voice to a colleague. ”I’ve been hearing that all week,” he snapped. ”We don’t know that.”

        He was instantly ashamed, he said, and thought, ”I’m being rude.”

        Troubled Sleep, Late Thanks

        The next days passed in a blur. Mr. Rocha was assigned to the team to investigate the mission. At the same time, he was working with the team that was looking into the attachment ring problem that nearly scuttled the mission the night before liftoff, while handling his other duties.

        At one point he got to ask Ralph Roe, a shuttle manager, why the photo request had been denied. He got no direct answer, he recalled. Instead, Mr. Roe replied: ”I’d do anything now to get a photo. I’d take a million photos.”

        Mr. Rocha’s sleep was still troubled — now, by nightmares, he said, describing some: he was in the shuttle as it broke up; his relatives were on the shuttle; ”Columbia has miraculously been reassembled, and we’re looking at the wiring and it’s got rats in there.”

        Since the accident, Mr. Rocha said, engineers and other colleagues have thanked him enthusiastically for speaking up, saying things like, ”I can’t imagine what it was like to be in your shoes.” His immediate supervisor has been supportive as well, he said, But from management, he said: ”Silence. No talk. No reference to it. Nothing.”

        Except, that is, from the highest-up higher-up. One day Mr. Rocha read an interview with the NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe, who wondered aloud why engineers had not raised the alarm through the agency’s safety reporting system. This time, Mr. Rocha broke the rules: he wrote an e-mail message directly to Mr. O’Keefe, saying he would be happy to explain what really happened.

        Within a day, he heard from Mr. O’Keefe, who then dispatched the NASA general counsel, Paul G. Pastorek, to interview him and report back. In a recent interview, Mr. O’Keefe said Mr. Rocha’s experience underscored the need to seek the dissenting viewpoint and ask, ”Are we talking ourselves into this answer?”

        NASA, following the board’s recommendation, has reached agreements with outside agencies to take images during every flight. And 11 of the 15 top shuttle managers have been reassigned, including Ms. Ham, or have retired.

  20. rtjsite says:

    Oops, excuse the length.

    • waynehale says:

      No, it is all good history to learn. I hope the next generation of space flight managers take these lessons to heart.

      I appreciate that you feel passionately about the mistakes that were made about Columbia. I trust you will spread those lessons learned.

      • rtjsite says:

        I van’t possibly influence NASA

      • rtjsite says:

        You mention my passion – if I am passionate about anything related to this subject it comes from my personal experience with US engineer/manager in-fighting in areas solely belonging to the engineers.

        When an engineer becomes a manager, his interest in the engineering he spent years learning is deemed in the past or ‘beneath him/her’. Only the managerial ladder figures in their daily ruminations and decision-making and they discard their engineering expertise — they grew out of it and won’t return to it.

        They also appear to believe that their – now effectively unqualified – OPINION trumps not only the engineers, but reality itself, and once stated it becomes their reality which they will defend to the death.

        My experience was with electronics engineers, but I believe it’s endemic and infests your business models to the detriment of the projects – and in NASA’s case the lives of the ‘lowly’ astronauts who just slot into the same system, somewhat lower even than the engineers.

        The greatest threat the astronauts face is their management – who remain with their feet planted firmly on the ground facing nothing worse than demotion.

  21. Hal Bell says:

    24th is Readdy’s 71st B-Day. I hope everyone in the pic will send him a B-Day wish. That includes you Ralph. He saved my bacon in Moscow one time with a taxi driver—fluent Russian. A really great American hero. Great pic Wayne. Thank you.

    Jody never ages—Chris, you need to count your blessings—I know you do every day.

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