Spaceflight Now

NASA mishap team revamped
Posted: March 21, 2003

NASA today announced a revamped management team to oversee the agency's internal investigation of the Columbia disaster in accordance with a request made late last month by the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The concern by the board was that senior NASA managers overseeing the disaster investigation - managers who played a role in clearing Columbia for launch and then managing its mission - would at some point face questioning by the CAIB about the decisions they made leading up to launch and during the conduct of the flight.

"It has become apparent that some of the chief managers of the investigation which NASA and this board share are also members of these boards that we're going to be looking at," Harold Gehman, CAIB chairman, said March 4. "We are then put into the place of having the investigators investigate themselves.

"That's not exactly true because NASA is not investigating management issues. Only we are investigating management issues," he said. "But ... I can't possibly have key investigatory managers also be the people whose performance we're looking at in other areas."

NASA today announced the formation of a new team - the NASA Accident Investigation Team, or NAIT - that will take over the role of the original Mishap Response Team that was formed immediately after Columbia's destruction Feb. 1. The MRT was chaired by Linda Ham, a former flight director who served as chairman of the agency's mission management team.

The MMT, a panel of senior shuttle managers formed in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster, was responsible for clearing Columbia for launch and for the top-level day-to-day decisions during the mission that defined the flight.

The MMT, for example, declined to request spy satellite imagery during Columbia's mission to inspect the shuttle's left wing for signs of damage after external tank debris fell off and hit the wing 81 seconds after blastoff. Instead, the MMT accepted a Boeing analysis indicating the shuttle could safely land despite potentially significant wing damage.

Late last month, Gehman asked NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to remove senior shuttle managers who played a role in the conduct of Columbia's mission from duties supporting the ongoing accident investigation.

O'Keefe initially balked at making any immediate changes, but he later agreed to assign NASA personnel not directly involved in the conduct of shuttle missions to key teams supporting the board's investigation.

And so Randy Stone, a widely respected former flight director who now serves as deputy director of the Johnson Space center, will take over as chairman of the newly formed NASA Accident Investigation Team.

The new team will be made up of three subdivisions matching similar elements of the CAIB's structure. Stone, along with chairing the NAIT, will manage a subdivision focusing on flight operations, mission control, flight planning and crew training.

Frank Benz, director of engineering at the Johnson Space Center, will oversee engineering and technology issues, including debris analysis, imagery and fault tree analysis. Jim Kennedy, deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center, will manage a review of maintenance, program management and internal processes.

"The Mishap Response Team met for the first time within two hours of the Columbia accident, and its demanding work has been highly efficient, methodical and productive," Stone said in a statement. "They have done a tremendous job under extremely difficult circumstances. Now, many of the initial mishap response activities are nearing their close, and it is time for NASA's accident support structure to transition to an organization designed to provide long term investigation support."

The statement says that over the next four to six weeks, search teams hope to wrap up search and recovery efforts in east Texas.

"Most of the organized search effort should be completed around May 1, 2003, weather permitting," the statement said. "Other activities coming to a close include NASA's Emergency Operations Center, which assisted in fielding thousands of calls about the accident and received almost 7,000 images from sources external to NASA."

The NAIT will meet for the first time Monday.

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