Exclusive: Book details NASA's ordeal

July 15, 2004 at 12:24 PM

Part 1 of 3

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WASHINGTON, July 13 (UPI) -- In their new book, "New Moon Rising: The making of America's new space vision and the remaking of NASA," authors Frank Sietzen Jr. and Keith L. Cowing detail how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration attempted to recover from the shuttle Columbia tragedy and prepare to fulfill President George W. Bush's new vision for the U.S. space program. Part 1 deals with NASA's deliberations on how to respond to the report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in August 2003.

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As the time for the release of the CAIB report drew near, the halls of NASA were filled with speculation as to what harsh judgments it would contain.

"There were clear signals that were coming to us as to what might be in the report," (NASA General Counsel) Paul Pastorek remembered. "We scored all of that."

In truth, NASA had been carefully following the hearings and since its own engineers were the ones working with the board during the tests on foam strikes and analysis of the Columbia's data transmissions and wreckage recovery, the direction the board would take was increasingly obvious. Since the senior managers had a strong flavor of what would be in the report, Sean O'Keefe ordered the development of a fundamental plan that would lay out the space agency's reply.

Already, shock waves had rolled over NASA as to what had come out during the spring and summer hearings on Capitol Hill.

"There was no 'there' there in the safety program, Pastorek recalled CAIB chairman Hal Gehman testifying. "That was the worst of the worst. It just blistered a whole lot of people around here -- I mean, big time blister."

And they didn't like to be blistered, either.

To say they were unhappy was an understatement, and some were spoiling for a fight. Confront the accusers head on. Defend the agency. To hell with Congress. NASA people in safety organizations were livid, Pastorek said.

In the aftermath of Gehman's remarks, and other elements of the investigation's conclusions that had been made public, Pastorek drew the senior leaders together under O'Keefe's direction to hammer out their formal response. Would NASA seek to agree? Or, as some were suggesting, would the agency take the gloves off, and for the first time since Feb. 1, 2003, take its critics head on?

"We knew that they were going to make recommendations, and we knew that they were going to make findings," Pastorek said. "Findings of fact were conclusions of law -- they are factual." But what would be their conclusions as to what had to change?

So a few days before the report's release, the debates continued. O'Keefe ordered Pastorek to go and write a preliminary statement, a draft of what the agency would say publicly. He did, and with 48 hours to go before the report, he presented his work before O'Keefe and the senior leadership, a regular group whose deliberations were jokingly called the "strategery" group, after the phrase coined on "Saturday Night Live" during the 2000 presidential campaign.

His statement shocked some, for without knowing what fixes to the shuttle or to NASA that CAIB would recommend, Pastorek's statement said, "We are going to accept the findings and comply with the report." Sign unseen, before they knew what the implications of such an embrace would be.

Not surprisingly, the draft caused a "tumult" in the leadership. Some objected, saying, "We can't accept these things without reading what they would be!" And O'Keefe and Pastorek understood those concerns, and they weren't really being unreasonable. After all, if this were a trial, how could a lawyer handling the case say he agreed with the judge's verdict if he hadn't even seen it first?

Such a reaction would be a normal response, but Pastorek argued that it wasn't a normal situation. And the debate formed two arcs of concern. One was over the phrase, "accept the findings." The other, the more contentious debate, addressed this idea of saying "comply with the recommendations." Accepting the findings, O'Keefe was hearing, was easier to swallow than the recommendations, which could conceivably have serious consequences for the agency's future -- and that of the shuttle.

The findings would likely say that there was nothing in the safety program. Some were already objecting to that prospect, as they had howled when Gehman said as much during the hearings.

"Sean was having conversations with Gehman," Pastorek recalled. But there were no leaks from the board to NASA. No inside information.

"We were doing what everybody else was doing," he said, which amounted to a careful reading of tea leaves. And there were many tea leaves to read. The board's public hearings, statements and press reports were combed through carefully.

O'Keefe, (Glenn) Mahone, (associate administrator for public affairs); (Bill) Readdy (associate administrator for spaceflight) and Pastorek had maintained a good inside-agency intelligence process of analyzing the tenor of what was being said about the accident, as well as the Hill reactions. Much of that was public bluster, with an unseen effort to reach out to NASA.

Despite their public utterances, many on Capitol Hill wanted to see NASA survive the disaster, and possibly made stronger. And despite the public humiliation and depth of the Columbia tragedy, with all of its potential impact on the shuttle program, the shuttle enjoyed strong, if not bipartisan, support.

Pastorek had read and summarized all of the documents that had been sent to the CAIB, and read and summarized the damning e-mails from the NASA, Boeing and USA workers who were concerned about the foam strike effects before the day of the disaster. It was an indictment, by fact.

"Factually, you did something wrong," Pastorek said. "All of that would be in the report's findings. The recommendations were going to be, 'Here's what you have to do to correct it.'"

Pastorek's critics felt it was bad enough the board was going to indict NASA, and now he wanted the agency to just "wholesale agree" to whatever it was? That was hard for a lot of people to accept.

Many were worried that Gehman would recommend that the shuttle should never fly again, that it was unsafe. Such a recommendation would be another disaster for NASA, for the space station components that were sitting in storage at the Kennedy Space Center awaiting launch aboard the shuttles. In addition there was unfinished hardware around the world, specifically designed for launch aboard the shuttles. Without the shuttles all this space hardware would be marooned -- destined to become expensive museum pieces.

But O'Keefe's careful reading of Gehman's statements, and his conversations with him about the Columbia and about shuttle safety, hinted that no such recommendation was likely.

"He (Gehman) had telegraphed openly that he wouldn't recommend that," said Pastorek.

Yet there were other concerns -- that the report would so tightly bind NASA into specific actions and proscribe specific results from the actions, that it could actually create a new safety problem.

"We thought, 'Be careful, Mr. Gehman, if you say you have to do this, this, this and this -- and then you'll be safe.' If you do that, you'll take all of the interest in our part to be safe out of how we do things," Pastorek suggested.

O'Keefe had an understanding about the form of the recommendations fairly early during the investigation. The internal debate raged in the final hours before the release. Finally, after everyone had had their "rant," O'Keefe spoke. NASA would accept the findings, and comply with the recommendations, however hard they might be.

The CAIB's final report was therefore neither a complete surprise nor a warm embrace for the agency. In O'Keefe's view it was, as it had been all along, important to embrace it -- whatever the costs -- and make its negative assessments the basis to move on to shuttle safety reforms. But defining the pathways to get to those reforms, and to both absorb the CAIB recommendations as well as head off any more political problems it might create, would prove much harder than he had expected.

On the evening of the day that the report was released, O'Keefe had a two-hour session reviewing its findings with nearly all of the CAIB members present. A few were missing. Roger Tetrault, Douglas Osheroff and Sally Ride had prior commitments and couldn't be present. There was no snub, O'Keefe felt, just scheduling issues.

After the meeting, Pastorek escorted the group to the Columbia Cafe on the 9th floor of NASA headquarters for a quick dinner. He would recall much later the atmosphere of the dinner as being cordial with no finger-pointing or "incidents."

As the dinner drew to a close, it was agreed by Hal Gehman and O'Keefe that it would be fruitful if some of the CAIB members would occasionally return to meet with senior NASA leaders to chew over the report in greater detail. After all, O'Keefe said, it would take time to digest the full series of its recommendations; some of which hadn't yet sunk in.

O'Keefe's leadership team would need to read the report over, think about it, and discuss it. Inevitably, questions would arise.

Gehman agreed, but also told O'Keefe that the final report document was the "definitive word" from the board. There would be no further embellishments needed, nor should any be expected. Any follow-on sessions that he would agree to have with NASA would only serve as a way for NASA to obtain explanations on what the CAIB had found and recommended and to get advice on how the recommendations could be implemented. Gehman and O'Keefe agreed to those ground rules, and the dinner concluded.


One evening after the report's release, Sean O'Keefe, Bill Readdy and Paul Pastorek sat around the administrator's office and talked about the report. Pastorek said NASA now needed to go one step further. It needed to say "we embrace this report." Readdy wouldn't hear of it.

"We've already said we will comply, I don't see why that is necessary," Readdy said. O'Keefe and Readdy went round and round over that issue. There was a standoff, and Pastorek said later, "Well, I got nowhere with that." But the next day, O'Keefe had a news event and used, for the first time in public, the phrase, "We embrace this report."

Pastorek didn't raise the issue again. And when Readdy spoke to the press the next time, he, too, said, "We embrace this report."

Slowly, as the weeks passed, the phrase cropped up in more and more NASA public utterances. We accept the findings, we will comply with the recommendations, we embrace this report.

"For the first 30 days after (the CAIB report release) it was a continuous refrain," Pastorek said. "We had to make sure we come clean about our mistakes, and that our people were prepared for the hearings." For to say that NASA "embraced" the CAIB report suggested that there had been "a pretty thoughtful understanding of what you did wrong."

But Pastorek was also mindful that you couldn't walk around all the time and admit that you make mistakes. But when you make them, especially on the scale of the Columbia accident, you have to admit it, as a first step in the process of correcting them, Pastorek said.

That long internal struggle, and public response, ended a phase of the Columbia accident that had opened on Feb. 1. Gehman's report had said that the shuttle wasn't unsafe, but needed a lot of change, both physically and culturally, to take to space once again.

Now the hard work would start of fixing the shuttles and making them safe again.

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("New Moon Rising: The making of America's new space vision and the remaking of NASA." Apogee Books. 2004. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. apogeebooks.com)

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