George Abbey never allowed a shuttle flight to be scheduled over the last days of January. He was too steeped in the events of the Apollo 1 fire and the STS-51-L loss of Challenger and her crew to put another space flight operation over those days. But Mr. Abbey was long gone by the time of the STS-107 Flight Readiness Review, sent into an unwilling retirement. But in his inimitable way, Mr. Abbey wanted all of us to stop and remember on those days how exacting the business we are in can be.
Not that delaying the flight a few weeks until February would have made any difference. All the testing and evaluation after the accident indicated that there was nothing particular that the weather or winds on January 16 that caused a large section of insulating foam to once again detach from the External Tank during launch. It is perhaps too existential a question to wonder if an additional two weeks, with its reminders of past vulnerabilities, would have caused someone to ask more questions, do more research, and just maybe . . . but such speculation is useless. George Abbey was gone and schedule pressure as discussed in earlier posts did not allow for sentimentality or superstitious delay. The clock was ticking toward the all-important US Segment completion date. Standing down to contemplate safety was not a ‘requirement’.
Since the loss of Challenger, all higher level managers of the shuttle program were required to attend the Flight Readiness Review in person at the Kennedy Space Center, about two weeks prior to launch. As a Lead Flight Director, I had attended a few FRRs before; as Launch Integration Manager trainee, I attended the STS-107 FRR the first week of January, 2003. Ron Dittemore, Linda Ham, and I had a long history of working together: we were all members of the Propulsion Systems Section of Flight Controllers early in our careers; we had all been Flight Directors together. Ron was senior to me by about a year; Linda was junior by about two years. But Ron had early on left the Flight Directors office to move up in shuttle program management and Linda, who had been somewhat his protégé for over a decade, had followed the same path. I dawdled as a Flight Director, the job I really loved.
So in a role reversal, Linda was assigned to act as Launch Integration Manager – she had been through the drill many times – while I was to watch, listen, and learn from her. The irony was not lost on me, but in truth there really was a lot to learn. The chairperson for the FRR was the Associate Administrator for Human Space Flight, Bill Readdy. It was not lead by the Shuttle Program manager, or the Launch Integration Manager. The Launch Integration Manger and his office staff were responsible for orchestrating the event. In theory, the FRR was a presentation by the shuttle program management to the most senior NASA leadership to gain permission to launch. Bill Readdy, of course, was an experienced shuttle astronaut himself who had moved on to Washington to help run the agency and learn the machinations required to navigate the political minefields of the nation’s capital.
The FRR was always held in the cavernous Mission Briefing Room in the Operations and Checkout building. The O&C had been built in the 1960’s and the MBR always had the atmosphere of some soviet function. Not only was the room huge, with a vaulted ceiling, but it was cold, devoid of any decorations. The layout included a u-shaped table where the principals sat, each before a microphone to amplify their questions or comments. Two large projection screens in the front would show the seemingly endless powerpoint slides, and an oversized lectern was provided for the presenter. In the back and along the sides were rows and rows of seats, mostly with assigned name placards. The front row of seats was nicer chairs and was reserved for the NASA Administrator, Deputy Administrator, and other high dignitaries. Generally these seats were empty and no one was brave enough to commandeer one of them. In the very back, with the least comfortable chairs, there were a handful of unassigned seats. Most of the time, the back wall was lined with folks standing. Somewhere between three and four hundred people would crowd the room for the duration, generally about a day and a half.
Most oppressive was the atmosphere. Presenter after presenter would lay out all the work their part of the program had completed, project pages of signatures showing that all the proper checks had been made. Rarely were questions asked, and almost always by those at the head table. In fact, the general impression was that people were not to question topics outside their area of concern or expertise. The long table in the hallway outside always had coffee, tea, water, and sometimes pastries or cookies. In the hallway, disgruntled lower level managers would gather and complain about the opacity of particular presentations. Questions would be lobbed about concerning flight rationale or engineering test results and their interpretation. But these discussions almost always took place in the lobby, not in the MBR. Nobody wanted to start a riffle in the FRR. After all, if you asked questions about their topics, they might ask questions about yours. Everybody wanted to get on the stage and off without questions. It was an oppressive atmosphere. And I had a front row seat to the proceedings; observe, wander the lobby, ask questions (outside), and generally think about what was going on.
Anything that might have been a topic of discussion at the FRR had been flagged days earlier. Side bar discussions, small group meetings, and multiple phone calls between senior managers had taken place. The solutions to any concerns were agreed to before the FRR started. As my future boss Bill Parsons – who had served with the US Marines in Okinawa – put it the FRR was a kabuki dance: pre-scripted, with every player knowing his or her part.
About the only person not intimidated by the proceedings, was John Young, bless his heart. He would stand up, ask questions in a clear and loud voice, and expect and answer. Even if his point was well taken, the folks at the table never seemed sure of how to handle it. Sometimes an action was assigned “due at the L-2 day briefing” or some such. But John had come to be considered a gadfly with a few topics that were his personal interests. He had no standing and no organization, and worse he sometimes asked goofy questions. Other than the comic relief of watching the head table squirm when John came to the microphone, little came of it.
Discussion of foam losses from the External Tank never came up as far as I can recall. That issue had been ‘dispositioned’ ages ago at the STS-113 ET/SRB Mate Review. There was no evident reason to reopen that topic.
So at the end of the day, everybody at the table said “go for launch.”
I had heard no reason to disagree.
January 16 was set for the launch of Columbia and her crew for her 28th flight.