Griffin talks shuttle launch decision in first news briefing
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: April 18, 2005
New NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said today he would consider pressing ahead with launch of shuttle Discovery next month even if an outside review panel found fault with NASA's implementation of post-Columbia safety upgrades.
"In concept, yes I would, if (senior managers) recommend that we should consider launching despite not filling all the squares on Stafford-Covey, that is something I would consider," Griffin said.
A panel of outside experts led by former Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford and former shuttle commander Richard Covey was chartered by NASA to monitor the agency's implementation of recommendations by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
Fifteen of the CAIB's 29 recommendations were classified as "return to flight," meaning they were to be implemented before shuttle launches resumed. The Stafford-Covey panel had hoped to present its final report to the NASA administrator a full month before return to flight to give the agency time to respond.
But the panel's report has been held up to give NASA time to complete last-minute testing. With the May 15 opening of Discovery's launch window fast approaching, it now appears unlikely the Return to Flight Task Group can finish its report a full month in advance.
Complicating the picture, some members of the panel have raised questions about whether NASA has, in fact, met the intent of at least some return-to-flight recommendations, including the ability to repair damage to the shuttle's heat-shield tile and wing leading edge systems in orbit.
Columbia was destroyed during re-entry Feb. 1, 2003, by a hole in its left wing that was caused by the impact of external tank foam debris during launch 16 days earlier. NASA managers believe the redesigned insulation scheme will preclude major form shedding but so far, engineers have not been able to come up with reliable techniques for repairing significant heat-shield damage.
During Discovery's mission, the astronauts will test a few rudimentary repair techniques that might prove effective fixing minor impact damage. But no techniques are available yet that could handle major damage to a wing leading edge or critical heat-shield tiles.
In a sense, NASA is faced with a catch-22. Repair techniques are needed before flights can resume, but any such repair techniques must be tested in the space environment to confirm they will work. Many agency managers believe it is safe to resume flights in the absence of certified repair procedures because:
Griffin did not discuss details of any such scenarios. But he expressed faith in the shuttle management team to make the right decision.
"I don't believe engineers make blanket decisions in advance and I don't believe the technical decisions are a voting matter," he said. "Stafford-Covey will have their criteria, the line managers in charge of the program will have theirs.
"Now, I cannot begin at this time to say under what specific conditions
that NASA might elect to go ahead with the launch given a disparity of
opinion between various interested parties as to whether we should or should
not. That will depend on the technical details of the issue at hand. But
that is precisely the point.
"But at the end of the day, the people wearing government and contractor badges charged with launching the vehicle will be the ones who are responsible and accountable for their actions."
Griffin said he had no illusions "about the fact that I am the person in the chain of command least knowledgeable about the full details of shuttle operation and its readiness for return to flight."
"I have a lot to learn and I have a lot to learn very quickly and there's no possible way I can learn it all," he said. "Nonetheless, I have enormous confidence in the shuttle team, both NASA and contractors, and what my focus will be on will be learning everything about the process that has gone into fixing the problems that led to the loss of (Columbia) and moving forward."
He said he would do everything possible to ensure good communications from "bottom to top" and "from side to side."
"Again, in the end someone must decide yes or no," he said. "The thing to do is take into account all of the knowledge that we have. I will be one person in that chain. I will probably know less about it than anyone else, but I will make certain that everyone has given me the most convincing technical arguments on why it's OK to launch, if it is OK to launch, before we commit to going ahead."
Immediately after leaving his first press conference at NASA headquarters in Washington, Griffin planned to fly to the Kennedy Space Center to sit in on a long-awaited space shuttle design certification review Tuesday.
NASA hopes to launch Discovery sometime during a window that opens May 15 and closes June 3. It is widely believed NASA will announce a new target launch date later this week, after the design certification review. May 22 is one possible target, sources say, but no final decisions have been made.
In any case, Griffin said a go, no-go decision will not be based on the crew's ability to repair tile damage.
"It's not at all clear from a fundamental viewpoint of the hypersonic aerodynamics involved that tile repair is ever going to be a very easy thing," he said. "It would be very, very easy to make a fix, quote unquote, to a tile known to be damaged and make the problem worse by inserting material or other changes that would (affect the ship's aerodynamics). It would be very easy to make the problem worse rather than better.
"The whole idea of tile repair is a very good idea, but the implementation of it could well be beyond that which we know how to do. ... If it comes down to the fact that we simply don't know how to repair shuttle tile that suffers a certain amount of damage in orbit, then that will be the answer. I don't know that that will be the answer, but that's what the squabble is about."
If that is how the discussion plays out, he said, "then we now need to elevate it to a higher level of decision making."
"Do we think we have solved the problems with foam shedding on the external tank with a high enough degree of confidence, that we believe nothing will fall on the orbiter that will damage it? That's a different question.
"Are we willing to take the statistical risk to fly the orbiter again in the event that we don't have a tile repair capability? That's yet another question. I don't know what the answers to those are.
"But the clearance for return to flight cannot be simply a go or no-go decision based on can you repair a tile in orbit. Even if a tile repair mechanism is offered up as a good idea and even if the capability is on board the orbiter to implement that, there is not a certain way of knowing whether that repair will have worsened the situation or, in fact, improved it.
"We need to get these kinds of facts out on the table so that people at large understand that this is not a simple issue."