Spaceflight Now

Shuttle return-to-flight task group outlines plans
Posted: August 7, 2003

Former astronaut Dick Covey, a co-chairman of the Return to Flight Task Group, addresses reporters at Kennedy Space Center today. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
The co-chairman of a panel charged with assessing how well NASA meets the intent of recommendations from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said today he's not sure the agency will have time to implement critical management changes before shuttle flights resume next year.

Richard Covey, a senior executive with Boeing who flew as pilot of the first post-Challenger mission, also said he was disappointed the safety-conscious management system implemented in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster broke down in Columbia's case.

"I wasn't surprised we had an accident," he told reporters after the panel's first public meeting. "Spaceflight is risky, those of us who have flown in space know there's risk and entry has always been (phase of flight) the crews have known was highly risky. So the fact that an accident happened on entry was not necessarily a surprise.

"Now, shocking? Yeah. Disappointing, particularly what I have learned of the process that maybe allowed the situation to develop where we had the accident. That was disappointing to me. It has similarities to the Challenger accident, but not perfectly."

Asked to be more specific, Covey said "the decision-making process, both pre flight and during flight, probably has some similarities to the decision-making process in the Challenger accident. If you look at the way that the known shedding of foam off the external tank was handled, you can go back and say well, all right, we knew we had some issues with the O-rings (in the flawed boosters used by) Challenger. They may not have been the same specific barriers to good decision making that occurred there, but the decision process was flawed, probably in both of those cases similarly."

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Columbia was destroyed during re-entry Feb. 1 by a breach in the leading edge of the ship's left wing. The breach most likely was caused by a piece of foam insulation that fell off the shuttle's external tank during launch and struck the leading edge. The external tank project had a history of foam shedding, as Covey said, but it was not considered a safety-of-flight issue and it was not a constraint to launch. Likewise, NASA engineers knew about booster O-ring joint problems but did not ground the fleet before Challenger's final flight.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board plans to release its report Aug. 26. To remove any doubt about NASA's willingness to follow those recommendations, NASA chartered an independent panel chaired by Covey and former Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford to assess the agency's response to the CAIB's recommendations. The Return to Flight Task Group plans to submit its final report one month before the next shuttle flight, whenever that might be. NASA hopes to launch the shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-114 as early as March 11.

"The intent of our charter is to establish an independent assessment of NASA's responses to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's recommendations," Covey said. "We also are asked to observe other safety and operational issues that may be pertinent relative to return to flight. It is not a broad charter, it is relatively narrow and focused. Our intent it to make sure we live up to the intent and the letter of our charter."

The task group includes numerous former NASA managers, including James Adamson, a former astronaut and aerospace executive who now runs his own consulting firm. He said the key element of the panel's charter is whether or not NASA meets the intent of the CAIB's recommendations.

"Our job, on the surface, may sound simple, but we're going to check and see if they've done that," he said. "It's not a simple yes or no question. I think everybody knows there's more than one way to skin a cat and we're going to try to look, to drill down into NASA's response to make sure they've met the intent of the recommendation."

One of the CAIB's five already released recommendations calls for improved imagery during ascent to make sure unwanted events like foam shedding do not go unnoticed. Adamson said that recommendation "is really intended to make sure that we don't re-enter with a hole in the vehicle without knowing it."

"The real intent of that is that NASA's got to take some action to be sure we don't do that again," he said. "And there are lots of ways to do that, some of them include imagery. But we're going to look at how you do that and what they're doing in response and we're going to make our assessment based on the intent."

The CAIB's final report is expected to be critical of NASA's management system and operational culture. Covey would not speculate on what the recommendations might involve, but he cautioned reporters not to expect too much too soon.

"We have already begun to try to scope the way we will address managerial, organizational type of recommendations when they come out of the CAIB," he said. "Because they may not be expected to be implemented before return to flight, then that puts us in a situation where we have to say well, what can we assess in the time period that we're chartered to do assessments? So our approach may be to look at plans, strategies or approaches that may be in place prior to the first flight and do an assessment. But it would not be a complete assessment because the real implementation may take longer."

Covey said he agreed with CAIB members who have said the shuttle should be viewed as an experimental spacecraft and not an operational vehicle.

"It goes back to my background as a test pilot and my understanding of those issues that really are important to make a vehicle operational," Covey said. "We've never been there with the space shuttle program and won't be through its life. So if indeed proper focus is the result of thinking in terms of it being experimental, I can support that. I like that."

But experimental vehicles, by their nature, face extreme risk and Covey said another failure will always be possible.

"Clearly with a fleet of three (remaining) orbiters and the demands of the space station program on our orbiter fleet ... then a safe return to fight and an ability to sustain safe flight without the loss of an orbiter is extremely important and there's no doubt about that," Covey said. "I think everybody's very sensitive to that.

"At the same time, we have to also recognize that the same demands of having safe flight and maintaining our orbiter fleet in order to support space station says we need to fly again. So there's a balance there. We'll never be absolutely sure we won't lose another orbiter. We can't do that and we should not have that expectation. We should be able, however, to find a way to make sure the things we know and the things we can learn about between now and the next flight and all those other flights" are properly implemented.

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