May 14, 2003
Members will hear testimony on the Space Shuttle Columbia investigation. Senator McCain will preside. Witnesses will be announced at a later time.
The Honorable Sean O'Keefe
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Committee with Admiral Gehman to discuss our ongoing efforts to honor the solemn pledge we have made to the families of the crew of Columbia and to the American people. That pledge is that we will find out what caused the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew, correct what problems we find, and safely continue with the important work in space that motivated the Columbia astronauts and inspired millions throughout the world. Much has happened since I appeared before this Committee and the House Committee on Science at a joint hearing on February 12, less than two weeks after the tragic accident. Most importantly, a grateful Nation has laid to rest with full honors six American heroes: Rick Husband, William McCool, Mike Anderson, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark. The people of the state of Israel also paid their final respects to Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon. We continue to be sensitive to, and supportive of, the needs of the astronauts’ families and will be at their side as long as they desire our support. We appreciate that the FY 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act included $50 million in funding to help pay for the costs of the recovery operation and accident investigation by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). We have established new accounting codes in the NASA financial system, titled Columbia Recovery and Investigations, to capture these costs. We are monitoring very closely the costs associated with this effort and we will ensure that the Congress is kept apprised of our continued progress. I would like to thank the Committee for their expeditious enactment of the Columbia Orbiter Memorial Act which authorizes construction of a Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of the STS-107 Columbia astronauts. In addition, NASA has established the NASA Family Assistant Fund which enables NASA employees to help provide for the families of the STS-107 crew and families of other NASA employees who have lost their lives while serving the Agency. NASA is deeply grateful for the support we have received during recovery operations from the men and women from the Department of Homeland Security, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Transportation Safety Board, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Park Service, Texas and Louisiana National Guard, state and local authorities, and private citizen volunteers who have helped us locate, document, and collect debris. In visiting with these folks, I can report to the Committee that the morale and commitment of the recovery team was an inspiration to me and to the entire NASA family. The outpouring of support from the local businesses, community leaders and the citizens of East Texas have especially humbled us. During the past three months there were approximately 5,700 personnel in Texas at any one time involved in the Shuttle material recovery. More than 20,000 people in all helped with this effort. The recovery operations, which stretched from San Francisco, California to Lafayette, Louisiana, are essentially complete. Nearly 85,000 pounds of debris have been recovered, representing approximately 38 percent of Columbia’s dry weight. Of the nearly 83,000 specific items recovered from the accident, more than 79,000 have been identified, with 762 of these coming from the left wing of the Orbiter. We are continuing to search some remote areas in western Texas, Utah and New Mexico. As of May 5, the Lufkin Operations Center had completed searches in all 169 Texas counties that reported Shuttle material sightings. The Lufkin Center closed on May 10 and we have transitioned to a smaller scale Recovery Operations Center located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. We are hoping that in the fall, when vegetation dies back, hunters and campers may find additional debris. In fact, directions for reporting any debris will be given to each hunter as he or she applies for licenses. I am saddened to note that one of the helicopters searching for debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed in the Angelina National Forest in east Texas on March 27. Buzz Mier, the pilot and Charles Krenek, a Texas Forest Service Ranger were killed in the crash, and three other crewmembers were injured. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the helicopter crew members killed in the accident. Using video of Columbia’s reentry provided by research institutions and helpful citizens, along with radar and telemetry data, we have identified several additional search areas in West Texas, Utah and New Mexico. To date, no material in these areas has been positively identified as coming from Columbia. NASA Cooperation With Columbia Accident Investigation Board The investigation of the CAIB is progressing. NASA recognizes the need for a credible and thoroughly independent inquiry and is fully cooperating with the Board. The Contingency Action Plan and standing investigation board were activated within an hour after the Columbia accident. This standing board was the result of the lessons learned from the Challenger accident in 1986, which indicated the importance of having a panel of qualified investigators ready to initiate work immediately following an accident. Subsequent to the Board’s formation, we received advice and counsel from Members of this Committee, as well as your colleagues in the House of Representatives and others, that the Board’s charter should include revisions to guarantee its complete independence in the investigation and to ensure that the investigation be as thorough as possible. NASA has been responsive to these suggestions and has moved expeditiously to make appropriate changes to the charter and to add members to the Board to expand its composition. More broadly, across our entire organization, NASA personnel are cooperating with the work of the CAIB. We continue to coordinate and categorize the collection of debris along the path of Columbia’s reentry and reconstruct the orbiter at the Kennedy Space Center. We are collecting and providing the Board with integrated image analysis and data. We are conducting fault tree analyses to look at all possible causes of the accident that the Board will independently validate. In summary, the men and women of NASA fully understand and support the important work of the CAIB. We look forward to learning from and acting on the Board’s recommendations. Status of International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope While waiting for plans to be made for their return to Earth, the ISS Expedition 6 crew--Commander Ken Bowersox, Science Officer Donald Pettit, and Cosmonaut Flight Engineer Nikolai Budarin—continued to perform science and routine ISS maintenance on orbit. The Expedition 7 crew – Edward Lu and Yuri Malenchenko – arrived at the ISS aboard the Soyuz early Monday, April 29. The Expedition 6 crew returned to Earth on May 3. In the absence of Shuttle support, NASA and the International Partners are addressing contingency requirements for the ISS for the near- and long-term. In order to keep the Expedition 7 and future crews safe, we must ensure that they have sufficient consumables, that the ISS can support the crew, and that the crew is able to return safely to Earth. Working closely with our International Partners, we have confirmed that the ISS has sufficient propellant to maintain nominal operations through at least the end of this calendar year. With the docking of the Progress re-supply spacecraft on February 4 (ISS Flight 10P), the crew has sufficient supplies to remain on the ISS through August without additional re-supply. The next Progress flight is scheduled for June. As we move beyond June, however, potable water becomes the constraining commodity. We are currently working closely with our Russian partner, Rosaviakosmos, to explore how best to address this issue on future ISS re-supply missions. All remaining U.S. manufactured International Space Station hardware for the Core Configuration has been delivered to the Kennedy Space Center and element ground processing is on schedule. The Node 2 module for the Space Station, built for NASA by the European Space Agency, will be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center by early this summer. Only one Space Shuttle mission to the Space Station in the critical path to U.S. Core Complete, STS-118, was scheduled to use Columbia. A revised U.S. Core Complete assembly schedule and subsequent deployment of international partner modules after installation of Node 2 will be confirmed when the Shuttle is ready to return to flight status. With respect to the Hubble Space Telescope, all of our remaining Shuttle Orbiters are capable of supporting any necessary servicing missions. Currently, the Hubble Space Telescope is performing well, and this robust observatory is in no immediate need of servicing. Should a delay in the planned November 2004 servicing mission occur that impacts the Telescope’s ability to perform its science mission, the Hubble can be placed in safe mode until a servicing mission can be arranged. Anticipating a Return to Flight We have begun prudent, initial planning efforts to prepare for “Return to Flight” in order to be ready to implement the findings of the CAIB. NASA’s Return to Flight analysis will look across the entire Space Shuttle Program to evaluate possible improvements in safety and flight operations in addition to implementing all of the recommendations of the Board. I have selected Dr. Michael A. Greenfield, the Associate Deputy Administrator for Technical Programs, to lead our Return to Flight activity along with William Readdy, our Associate Administrator for Space Flight. They will co-chair the newly formed Space Flight Leadership Council. The Council is composed of the Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance, the Deputy Associate Administrator for International Space Station and Space Shuttle, and the four Space Flight Center Directors. The Council will review and assess each course of action recommended by the Return to Flight Planning Team and provide direction to the Space Shuttle program for implementation. The Return to Flight Planning Team is already working to incorporate the CAIB’s first two preliminary recommendations into the Return to Flight strategy. In the interest of assuring that NASA fully addresses each of the CAIB’s recommendations, I have asked Tom Stafford to lead a team that will provide an independent assessment of NASA’s strategy for implementing the CAIB’s recommendations. We are working to define the full membership of the team. I would also like to thank Admiral Gehman and the rest of the Board members for the thorough and diligent manner in which they are conducting their investigation. We are grateful for their efforts. We will make our human space flight program better and safer because of their work. As I stated earlier in my testimony, we still have a long road to travel until we can return the Shuttle to flight. The lessons of past accident investigations tell us that we have reached a critical juncture in the process of evidence gathering and analysis at which patience is absolutely required. I commend the members of this Committee for their support of this vital investigation. We at NASA look forward to continuing to work with the Committee to ensure that we learn from this accident, move forward to develop and utilize the capabilities that can best and safely help us achieve our national objectives in aeronautics and space research and exploration. Mr. Chairman, thank you for calling this important hearing. I look forward to responding to your questions.
Admiral Harold Gehman
Good morning Mr. Chairman, Senator Hollings, distinguished Members of the Committee. It is a pleasure to appear today before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. I thank you for inviting me and for the opportunity to provide an update on the progress of the investigation into the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her courageous crew of seven. My intent today is to provide the Committee with the latest information on the progress and direction of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and its three and a half months of investigation. I am prepared to explore any area in which you or the Committee are interested; however, in order to be concise I’ve limited my prepared remarks to these three areas: § The Board itself § The accident investigation § Matters beyond the initiating event I. THE BOARD ITSELF Within an hour after the accident, Administrator O’Keefe activated the accident contingency plan and the standing mishap board that was called for by NASA procedure - a procedure adopted based upon lessons learned from the Challenger accident. The standing board, excluding the Chairman, had seven members appointed by position, not name. These are positions such as the Commander of the Air Force Safety Center, the Commander of the Navy Safety Center, the Director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Accident Investigation and the Division Manager of the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Safety Division, among others. These experts are all Federal government employees. They are arguably some of, if not the, most experienced and knowledgeable aircraft accident investigators in the world. To augment this standing board, we immediately started adding non-government, non-NASA people, starting with me. As the need for additional expertise and the amount of actual work grew, I added, in my capacity as Chairman of the Accident Investigation Board, a total of five more non-government, non-NASA Board members. This brings us to where we are now: 13 Board members, which just happens to be the same as the number of members of the Rogers Commission. Only one of these professionals has any significant connection with NASA. I want to emphasize that our Board members are active investigators, not passive listeners. We are in session seven days a week and have been since the first week. We have developed a staff that is almost exclusively non-NASA. We are following many precedents set by the Rogers Commission, including using the Department of Justice to archive records and using frequent public hearings to allow our progress to be monitored by all of our constituents. We are taking all possible advantage of other organizations with applicable expertise. These include, among others, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Safety Council and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, just to name a few. Mr. Chairman, as a Naval aviator, I am sure you will appreciate the significance of the Board’s extensive use of the special tools available to us under the rubric of a safety investigation. We are gaining insights into areas we would not be privy to under other investigatory models. The benefit of this process will flow directly to you and your Committee in the form of a deeper and much more complete view into Shuttle Program processes, management, safety programs and quality assurance. II. THE ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION The Board has made excellent progress in gaining a precise picture of the environment and forces acting on the Columbia in her last ten minutes of flight. Through detailed and exhaustive scientific and engineering analysis and through just plain hard work, we have determined the facts related to the loss of the Shuttle and her crew. While I cannot lay out for you with absolute certainty the entire chain of events that led to this catastrophe, I can tell you that the pieces of this puzzle, particularly regarding the mechanics of the accidents, are fitting together with increasing precision and consistency. As a means for crosschecking the consistency of our evidence and findings, we are simultaneously building six separate “pictures” or scenarios of the accidence sequence. These “pictures” may be labeled: § The aerodynamic scenario § The thermodynamic scenario § The detailed system timeline from telemetry and recovered on-board recorder § The photographic and videographic scenario § The story the debris reconstruction and analysis tell us, and § The story the records of maintenance and modification work tell us…. We have developed each picture quite accurately; we then overlay the scenarios one on the other to find the best fit. All six scenarios point toward the same conclusion: that the Columbia entered the Earth’s atmosphere with a pre-existing deformation in the leading edge of the left wing. That deformation allowed super-heated air, well above 3,000 F, to get into the wing’s internal structure over a period of 10 minutes. After a few minutes, the heat-damaged wing began encountering significant aerodynamic forces with which it could not cope. When traveling at over 12,500 miles per hour, it doesn’t take a lot of damage to create significant heat and significant aerodynamic forces. Because the Shuttle maintained a nominal flight path and altitude until the very end, we believe the accident itself was sudden and catastrophic. Mr. Chairman, while the Board ultimately expects to speak with a high degree of confidence regarding the entire accident scenario, at present we are not entirely confident that we know for certain what physical event initiated the failure chain of events. We are all aware that the left wing was struck by External Tank insulating foam 81 seconds after launch, but to date, we are still looking for hard evidence that this foam strike caused any damage to the left wing. We are conducting tests now to help fill in this critical link in the chain of events. III. MATTERS BEYOND THE INITIATING EVENT Defining the point of the origin and timing of the failure sequence is extraordinarily important, but this by itself does not satisfy our requirement to find both the contributing and underlying causes of this accident. We also must determine why and how this failure process got started in the first place. We are looking in parallel at all related processes that pertain to the Shuttle system as a whole. These processes include, but are not limited to: safety, risk management policies and practices, quality assurance, maintenance practices, consistency in control of waivers and anomalies, turnaround processes, preparations to launch, work force issues, budgets, and the group dynamics of all boards and committees that NASA has set up to ensure inter-disciplinary coordination. Mr. Chairman, the Board intends to draft a final report that places this accident in context. By “in context” I mean we will attempt to build a complete picture of how this accident fits into the complicated mosaic of budget trends, the myriad previous external reviews of NASA and the Shuttle Program, the implementation of Rogers Commission recommendations, changing Administrations and changing priorities, previous declarations of estimates of risk, work force trends, management issues and several other factors--each of which may contribute to a safer program to a greater or lesser degree. We on the Board are fully aware that when our work is finished, your work will be just beginning. We have set a high intellectual bar for the Board to clear. That bar is this: our report will be of sufficient depth and breadth that it will serve as the basis for a complete public policy debate on the future of the Space Shuttle Program. We believe we can both find the cause of this accident and relate it to these other issues. As we find items relevant to the return to flight decision, we have and will continue to release those results in the form of interim findings and recommendations, similar to the way the National Transportation Safety Board does in its aircraft accident investigations. These will both keep the Congress, the Administration, and the public informed of our progress and allow for interim work at NASA to proceed as quickly as possible. Mr. Chairman, speaking for the 13 dedicated experts on the Board and the thousands of people working to solve this mystery, I can assure you, the astronauts’ families, and the American people that we will spare no effort to get to the bottom of this. I estimate that we are better than half done. We have all the assets and expertise we need, or we know where and how to get it. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. This concludes my prepared remarks and I look forward to your questions.