When you are in a High Reliability Organization, you have to pay attention. The more extreme the risk, the more difficult the environment, the more complex the technology, the more attention you must pay. But life intrudes. As the song says, there are planes to catch and bills to pay, and too there are little children to play with. You cannot work all the time, and if the balance gets too far either way, a price will be exacted. Once upon a time I wrote: “pay attention, do good work, have no regrets”. True, but far too simplistic.
In 2002 I thought we were paying the right level of attention to the shuttle. I thought I was paying the right level of attention to the shuttle. I was a Flight Director. I was also a husband and a father and active in my community. I thought I could do it all.
I was wrong.
Later on, I will write about the MLK three day weekend that cost us a crew just because we took three days off. But how can you know in advance where the proper balance is between work and life when you work at extreme risk?
This is my personal recollection of the events leading up to the Columbia accident nearly ten years ago, so let’s get personal. I will start with the work side; later I will visit the ‘life’ side.
In 2002 I was a Space Shuttle Flight Director at the Johnson Space Center. Not only that, I was the Deputy Chief of the Flight Director’s Office for Space Shuttle Operations. That meant that I had managerial responsibilities; personnel responsibilities, budgetary responsibilities. Oh, that last one, about budget – we will visit that again in a later post. How I hated budget responsibilities in an era of cost cutting.
Life was a continuous round of meetings, teleconferences, and management decisions. I regularly attended the Shuttle Program management meetings and had input into many of the decisions that were made in those days. We evaluated in flight anomalies, provided recommendations on the budget, questioned technical issues, and tried to pay attention to everything. Even though the organization chart showed I was in the Mission Operations organization, we were all part of “the Program”.
I had just come off a successful Lead Flight Director assignment in December 2001 for STS-108/ISS UF-1. Being a lead flight director is a year long assignment; the Lead Flight Director is responsible for all aspects of mission planning, training, and execution for a shuttle flight. It was a tremendous amount of pressure and a huge satisfaction when it was over. ISS Utilization Flight-1, commanded by Dom Gorie, was a logistics flight with a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module full of supplies and a large quantity of scientific experiments for the ISS. The most emotional part of the flight was the 9/11 remembrance which got punted to me. The list of mission objectives was long. We completed them all, just another 100% successful shuttle mission. Except for the inflight anomalies on the shuttle system, nothing untoward occurred, and even those were nothing to worry about. Or so we thought.
It was my third, and as it turned out, last assignment as a Lead Flight Director.
Every shuttle flight has three to five Flight Directors assigned. One FD was the Ascent/Entry guy – my usual job. The A/E FD worked shifts prelaunch, launch, went to in standby/monitor mode for the middle of the flight, and then worked one pre-deorbit shift (Flight Control System Checkout day) and the Entry shift. Or Entry shifts, as weather caused frequently delays. During most of the flight, while the on-orbit flight directors were in charge, the A/E FD could be found most often in the JSC Weather office kibitzing with the meteorologists, eating their food (they always had the best snack layout), hanging out in the back row of the MMT, and generally being a nuisance. During the ‘on-orbit’ period, there were three shifts of roughly eight hours each, cleverly named the Orbit 1, Orbit 2, and Orbit 3 shift. Sometimes we called the Orbit 3 shift (when the crew was asleep), the Planning shift because every “night” the plan would be reviewed, modified, and changes sent up to the astronauts. If the flight was more than about 10 days long, an additional Orbit team would be assigned to allow the three primary shifts to have a day off. Shift schedule planning could be complex. Typically the Lead Flight Director worked the Orbit 1 shift. But on every flight, because the FD had to stay in the Mission Control Room working the minute by minute details, a manager from the Mission Operations organization was assigned to be the go between from the flight control team and the on-console flight directors to the Mission Management Team, aka NASA senior management. The Mission Operations Director had several formal duties, most important of which was as a member of the MMT. The MOD did not work a specified shift but was always in the MCC during the most critical and dynamic times. So when the on-console FD was under the most stress, that was the precise moment when the MOD, the FD “boss” would show up: to sit on the console directly behind the FD, and offer “advice” and “encouragement” and write up performance appraisals. The MOD, along with the Lead Flight Director, also flew to KSC for the Flight Readiness Review about two weeks before launch where about a hundred of the NASA senior managers met face to face to ensure the shuttle was ready for launch.
I was assigned to be the MOD for the 4th Hubble Space Telescope servicing Mission, STS-109, which flew in March of 2002. It was a hectic mission with lots of little issues, but no big ones that I recall. I hope I wasn’t too much of a nuisance to the flight control team doing the real work!
Finally, for 2002, I was assigned as the STS-113 A/E Flight Director. STS-113 or ISS Assembly Flight 11A carried a huge solar array – Port Array #1 – up to the ISS. Jim Wetherbee was the commander. We were all informed of the in flight anomalies from the previous flight, STS-112. Among those anomalies was the loss of a large segment of insulating foam from the External Tank which fell and struck the left hand Solid Rocket Booster. This strike left a large smudge on the steel case. We Flight Directors speculated that if that piece of foam had struck a critical electronic box on the SRB not far from where the smudge was located, that BAD THINGS might have happened. But then, we Flight Directors were always worry warts. At the FRR the foam loss was deemed “not a safety of flight issue”. The A/E FD does not go to FRRs. In retrospect, of course, I wish I had gone. Maybe I could have gotten the captain to turn the Titanic away from the iceberg. But that didn’t happen. No significant foam loss occurred on STS-113, so we all shrugged and agreed it had been a one time thing.
We were wrong. STS-113 was the last successful entry of a space shuttle flight for three years.
We all knew that Jim Wetherbee was slated to take over JSC’s office of Safety and Mission Assurance right after his flight; so for a humorous moment, I got on the Air to Ground radio after the landing and spoke with him. It is not typical, but not all that unusual, for a Flight Director to pre-empt the CAPCOM and talk directly with the crew. After the successful landing I was in a jocular mood so just before Wetherbee was to leave the cockpit, I called him up (you can probably find the recording somewhere) and congratulated him on a successful flight and told him “your desk in Building 1 [JSC’s management building] is waiting for you”. Fate is funny; it turned out that prophecy applied to me too, but I didn’t know it at the time.
It was my last time to sit at the Flight Director’s chair in Mission Control. Best job of my life; I miss it every day; but it was over and I didn’t know it.
So work was a 60 hour a week job; it was always on my mind. There were a thousand details to plan and decide and brief to management. Even then I recognized that there were a million details in the shuttle business that I couldn’t participate in; there just wasn’t enough time or energy for any one person to do it all. The folks in the shuttle program office, Ron Dittemore, Linda Ham, and the rest, they had a tough job. Tougher than you know. Tougher than I knew at the time. Everybody played their part, everybody was highly motivated, everybody wanted the shuttle to succeed, and yet, within months, we were all to fail.
Why? Listen and learn. Maybe you will avoid failure. But don’t count on it.