Spaceflight Now

NASA deputy chief declines to address 'culture' questions
Posted: August 5, 2003

NASA will respond to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's recommendations "almost to the letter," a senior agency official said today. But Frederick Gregory, NASA's deputy administrator, downplayed widely publicized criticism of NASA's management culture, saying "it would be difficult for me to define to you what the 'NASA culture' is."

Gregory, William Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight, and Bryan O'Connor, associate administrator for safety and mission assurance - all former shuttle commanders - met with reporters at the Kennedy Space Center today after meeting with members of an independent board charged with assessing NASA's implementation of the accident board's recommendations.

Gregory was repeatedly asked about what NASA plans to do to correct problems with its management philosophy, the so called "NASA culture" that permeates agency operations. One reporter opined many believe it may prove easier to fix the shuttle's technical shortcomings than it will be to correct any major flaws in the agency's mindset before flights resume next year.

But Gregory chose not to answer the reporter's question about what NASA might be planning to address the culture issue in the weeks and months ahead.

"That's an interesting observation," he replied. "We have the five technical recommendations (already released by the CAIB), the report itself won't come out until the end of the month and perhaps some of those things you mentioned might be mentioned. But at this point, we have not received any comments officially from the accident investigation board, justifying or backing up your statements."

This reporter then asked Gregory to respond to the spirit of the first question in light of the virtual certainty the board will find fault with NASA's management procedures. Again, Gregory declined to provide any specifics.

"What we are looking at are not only are the technical issues, what we would look at is any process that might need to be modified or changed as we transition from an ops activity, an operations activity, into a return-to-flight activity," he said. "I think you will see there will be some changes, process changes, that will occur. But at this point only as we move from the operations of the standard activities that we're doing into this return to flight time."

Yet another reporter came at the question from another angle and Gregory replied that he believed most of the criticism of NASA's operating culture originated with a single CAIB member and that the board's findings would not be known until the panel's report is released Aug. 26.

"It would be difficult for me to define to you what the 'NASA culture' is," Gregory said. "As I sit here, and I have three astronauts here, I suspect if you tried to determine what the culture of the three of us is, you would find there are three different cultures here. So that's why I have said, I have to wait and see what, if anything, is being written (by the CAIB) about culture before I can respond to your question."

Readdy was somewhat more forthcoming.

"The comment that it's a 'culture thing' maybe does apply in some small area," he said. "I see a gentleman there who is wearing and Apollo shirt today. We were over in the Saturn 5 display area earlier today. There is a culture there, too, that after the Apollo 204 fire (in 1967) got us back to the moon and focused on mission. So there are different aspects of a culture.

"The real challenge will be for us to identify those things that are very positive about our culture and reinforce those and whatever the CAIB may say in terms of the negative aspects of the culture, to identify those very specifically and fix them."

How NASA plans to accomplish that before next spring was left unsaid.

NASA's current target date for the first post-Columbia mission is March 11, the opening of a window that extends through April 6. The launch window is based on a requirement to launch the next mission in daylight and to make sure its external fuel tank separates with enough lighting to ensure a good photographic assessment of its condition.

Columbia, of course, was destroyed by a breach in the ship's left wing leading edge that investigators believe was caused by a chunk of foam insulation that fell off the external tank during launch.

Most agency insiders believe the March time frame is overly optimistic and that a launching next summer is a more realistic expectation. Readdy said today the shuttle team needs a date to march toward from the standpoint of processing hardware, but he stressed that the next mission will not be launched until all parties agree it is safe to do so.

"We understand that one, we don't have the Columbia Accident Investigation Board final report in front of us so there will likely be adjustments there," he said. "Two, we also understand that perhaps March may be success oriented. But we need to have something to get the team all marching in step on and it appears the window, I think, from March 11 to April 6, honored all the constraints that we know thus far: Daylight launch, daylight external tank separation so we can do assessments there, the beta angle cutouts (for temperature control at the space station).

"Is March ambitious? Probably. But that's how you arrive at what the other, not-so-long poles are, the other things that may be potentially in the critical path and identify those so you can go off and solve them."

Gregory emphasized NASA's drive to launch would be driven by accomplishing milestones and not by any desire to meet a specific date.

"We're committed to return to flight but we are committed to doing so safely as we can," he said. "The point I want to make here is we are milestone-oriented focused, not schedule focused. If you see schedules that have a scheduled launch on it, it's only so our folks can work toward a launch date. But it does not necessarily represent the actual date that we will return to flight with the shuttle."

Earlier today, Gregory, Readdy and O'Connor met with members of the independent board charged with assessing NASA's implementation of CAIB recommendations. The panel is chaired by Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford and shuttle veteran Richard Covey.

"Our commitment is to independently assess NASA's response and implementation of the findings and recommendations of the CAIB," Gregory said. "As you probably know, there will be no attempt whatsoever to argue or defend a recommendation from the CAIB. We will respond to each of the findings and recommendations and in fact ... we will go further than that. The Stafford-Covey task group will assess our response to the findings and recommendations and will have an opportunity, if they find some areas that they observe that have not been picked up, to make a recommendation to us."

As for when the next shuttle might get off the ground, "we will not fly until we are ready to, we have responded to the CAIB, we've had an assurance from the task group that we are headed down the right road, that we have not deviated, that we have not missed anything. Obviously, we will remain vigilant to any congressional discussions or inquiries."

Said O'Connor: "We're going to return to safe space flight by setting the bar higher than it was before."

The news conference ended with a question about whether NASA will implement every CAIB recommendation before the resumption of shuttle flights.

"I think we will be responding almost to the letter to the recommendations of the board," Gregory said. "Now again, the board has not published the report yet and I may have to back off a little bit. But what we will do is the right thing, my assumption is that we would follow to the letter the recommendations and that's why we have the Stafford-Covey task team there independently assessing our response to the board. They will tell us if we have gone down the wrong path or not."

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