Spaceflight Now

Ham overcome by emotion when describing anguish
Posted: July 22, 2003

In an emotion-charged meeting with reporters, Linda Ham, chairman of NASA's mission management team and a lightning rod for criticism of decisions made - or not made - during the shuttle Columbia's ill-fated voyage, spoke publicly for the first time today, defending NASA's management practices but agreeing major changes are needed.

Contrary to some earlier media reports, Ham said she never received any formal requests to obtain spy satellite imagery of Columbia to determine the severity of the foam strike and the issue was not discussed during any of the mission management team meetings held during Columbia's flight.

She said she accepted the results of a hurried Boeing-led analysis, carried out at the request of NASA, that concluded the foam strike was not a safety-of-flight issue. She insisted any lower-level engineers or managers who might have disagreed were free, even encouraged, to voice those concerns directly to her. But no one stepped forward and Ham had no reason to question the engineering analysis.

"It goes without saying we were all trying to do the right thing," she said. "All along, we were basing our decisions on the best information that we had at the time. Nobody wanted to do any harm to anyone. Obviously, nobody wants to hurt the crew. These people are our friends, they're our neighbors, we run with them, work out in the gym with them, you know my husband is an astronaut. I don't believe anyone is at fault for this."

But Ham, a 21-year NASA veteran, former flight director and one of the highest ranking women in the high-pressure world of human space flight operations, was removed from her post as manager of shuttle integration and chairman of the mission management team earlier this summer. She currently is in a sort of management limbo at the Johnson Space Center, where some insiders believe she is being made a scapegoat for decisions that were unanimously supported by the entire MMT.

"She did the best she could do given the information she had," said one official who asked not to be named. "She talked to people she trusted, she listened to the analysis. She doesn't deserve to be crucified for this. But she will be. She already has been. She made mistakes, but we all did."

Meeting with 10 reporters today, including the writer of this report, Ham endured occasionally pointed questions about her role in Columbia's flight, calmly fielding most with technical savvy and occasional glances at type-written notes. But when asked about criticism directed at her personally, she lost her composure.

"We were really doing the best we could," she said. "Our goal is to launch and of course keep the crew safe, that's the number one goal, and also bring the orbiter back safely and accomplish the mission. That's our job, our number one job. I think we all take some personal responsibility for this and I certainly feel accountable for the MMT. So it's been very difficult through this.

"I know the important thing to do right now is get the program back on (its) feet, get back to flight and get back to flight more safely than ever. My husband being an astronaut and having two kids, we've all gone through this together..."

She suddenly stopped, eyes filling with tears, and could not continue. Flight director LeRoy Cain, the man in charge of mission control during Columbia's re-entry Feb. 1, handed her a handkerchief while mission operations representative Phil Engelauf answered another question. The briefing continued. But the emotional torment on Ham's face was unmistakable. Whatever one might believe about her role in the management of Columbia's mission, there can be little doubt the disaster is never far from her mind.

"It's unconscionable to me that people can attribute to the members of the MMT or the flight control team or the rest of the folks during these missions anything other than the best of intentions," said Engelauf, himself a veteran shuttle flight director. "These are people of good conscience doing everything in their power to get the right answers. This is what we do for a living. LeRoy sits at that console and his job, and my job when I'm there, is to keep the crew safe and get them home in one piece. That is everything we do here and when we come to work that's all we're focused on.

"So in the end, yes, we lost the crew and we lost the vehicle and we can't escape that and nobody feels worse about that than every one of us who has their hands on these missions every day," Engelauf said. "But it is not because of lack of good intent or lack of effort on anybody's part. If the system fell down, we'll fix the system. But it's really difficult to me to attribute blame to any individual personalities or people. We can find mistakes in analyses and we can find places where we weren't good enough. But it's not because of malice or ill intent."

One of the enduring questions of the post-launch MMT agenda has been disposition of requests for satellite imagery of Columbia to better characterize the extent of any damage to the ship's left wing. At least two such efforts were initiated, but Ham said today the issue was never brought up to the MMT.

"That's interesting question," she said. "We have read (news) reports that the mission management team had declined a request for outside assistance and if you read through the transcripts, you'll note that the mission management team never addressed a request for outside assistance because it never came up in any of the meetings. It never came up to me personally.

"I did hear about a possible request for imagery via a phone call. When I did hear about that possible request, I began to research who was asking. What I wanted to do was find out who that person was and what exactly they wanted to look at so we could get the proper people from the ops team together with this group of people, sit down and make sure that when we made the request we really knew what we were trying to get out of it.

"So I went to our contractor, United Space Alliance, to see if they were making a request, I went to the space shuttle vehicle engineering office and I also went to the mission evaluation room where all the engineering work is done, thinking if anyone knows they will know if there's a such a request out there. I couldn't find any request so we did not pursue that."

She said she had "absolutely no reluctance to ask for outside assistance."

"We certainly would have done that if we could have gotten the right information together and the right people together and done that," she said. "Several weeks after the accident, I did find out who was asking and these folks that were asking were actually in the MMT and never brought it up. They were in the MER (mission evaluation room) meetings before the MMT and never brought it up. So for some reason, they didn't feel comfortable bringing it up in the MMT. Certainly, you would think they would have done that at those other meetings or in the hall or at any time. But it never, ever came up."

As most readers know by now, Columbia's left wing was struck by a falling piece of foam insulation that broke away from the ship's external fuel tank 81 seconds after blastoff Jan. 16. Two flights earlier, another large piece of foam had broken away from the same area of the tank and struck one of the shuttle Atlantis' solid-fuel boosters.

The Columbia debris strike was seen during analysis of launch film the day after liftoff. But the actual site of the impact was not visible and the extent of any resulting damage was unknown. A team of NASA-led contractor engineers began studying possible damage scenarios using a computer program designed to predict damage to the shuttle's heat-shield tiles. Ham said today she was content to give the team time to work before making any hasty decisions.

In the end, the engineers concluded the foam strike might lead to severe localized heat damage during re-entry but it did not pose a catastrophic "safety of flight" threat.

"We were trying to give the technical community sufficient time to do an in-depth analysis," Ham said. "They did do their analysis, they did use the Crater (program) and the other tools they had available to them, I do trust that the Mission Evaluation Room, with their mission experts, would bring forward the results of that and they did come forward on that Friday, the 24th, and said they did not believe there was a safety of flight issue and that there would be no burn through and that at most we would have a potential turn around issue, some work on the orbiter that we'd have to do post flight. I did trust that their analysis and the work they had done was correct."

No one in the MMT objected to the report. But after Columbia's catastrophic re-entry, some engineers let it be known then had deep concerns about the analysis. Ham said she never heard any such concerns. Engelauf and Cain agreed.

"We foster a culture here that very much encourages folks to talk, to communicate, the lines of communications are always open," Cain said. "That's the culture we very much encourage and foster around here. And the reason we do that, as you heard Linda mention earlier ... is because we have the safety of the crew the success of the missions at the forefront of our mind every single day we come to work.

"So in order for us to do our jobs effectively, it is crucial that we have open and clear lines of communications. It is absolutely critical and it is, frankly, expected of every single person in every organization, from the engineer all the way up to the management of the programs. Certainly for human spaceflight endeavors, that's the culture we foster. And I believe it's alive and healthy today."

Ham said lower-level engineers and managers have formal and informal avenues to approach senior management with technical concerns.

"For some reason, we didn't get it either way, which I think is also of interest," she said. "You know, whatever happened somewhere, we probably need to figure that out and see if there is a way we can improve that. But I'd also agree we have wide-open communications, our doors are always open and we're more than willing to hear what people have to say. That's the only way we can operate, that's the only way we're going to hear about these kinds of things and the only way we can continue to fly safely. So we really do need these people to feel comfortable and come forward with their issues."

Said Engelauf: "In the final analysis, every night when I go to bed, (I know) we lost STS-107, we lost the crew, we lost the vehicle. Clearly, that is not the way it is supposed to happen and that is not what we do here. So no matter how you do the arithmetic, we're getting a wrong answer and we have to fix that. We all know that. We're going to have to wait until we get some recommendations from people who look at this from a different perspective. It's very difficult to pinpoint the details. It may be something that just isn't obvious to us. I certainly don't want to leap to the easy answers and fix something that isn't' causing the problem."

Engelauf also addressed another issue that keeps popping up in the disaster investigation: The agency's long history of foam shedding and how senior managers slowly grew to accept what sociologist Diane Vaughan calls the "normalization of deviance."

"We've had incidences of foam coming off the tank throughout the history of the program and the same management processes that I think got us comfortable that that was not really a safety of flight issue have been allowed to continue, rightly or wrongly," Engelauf said. "I don't think you can point to individuals today and say that person got comfortable with it, because we've sort of inherited this from the time when Linda and I were back as front room flight controllers and there was a completely different set of people managing the program.

"But I think the intent is that our processes try to cover these sorts of things, we try to put all the checks and balances in place and we try to do all the analyses and in this particular case, I don't think the problem was that we didn't do the analysis or didn't take notice of the foam. I think we got the wrong answer on the analyses.

Cain said "at least part of the answer has to be that fundamentally, we are dealing with an incredibly complex system. It's the most complicated machine that humans have ever built. And over time, we are going to make some human errors. And that's got to be at least part of the answer. We do everything in our power, every single day in this business, to manage the systems to minimize that. And over time, with this complex of a system and the risky environment of space, that has to be at least part of the answer."

Finally, Ham, Engelauf and Cain agreed that NASA would have done everything possible to mount a rescue mission if the team had realized Columbia faced a catastrophic defect. While it is doubtful any such scenario would have succeeded, all three said NASA certainly would have made the attempt.

"Had we known that there was a catastrophic situation on orbit, we certainly would have done everything we could have, including is there anything we can do for the tile repair, we certainly would have pursued rescue. There's no doubt," Ham said.

Added Cain: "If we had known that we had a problem while we were on orbit, I certainly agree, we would have left literally no stone unturned. As to whether it would have made a difference, I think it's an impossible question to answer."

Spaceflight Now Plus
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