Shuttle mission management team gets major revamp
Posted: September 17, 2003

HOUSTON -- In perhaps the most convincing demonstration yet that NASA "gets it," the new chairman of the agency's mission management team today outlined major changes to improve communications among engineers and managers, to ensure dissenting views are heard and to correct the cultural shortcomings blamed in part for the Columbia disaster.

"Any arrogance I may have had went out the window on Feb. 1," said Wayne Hale, a widely respected ascent-entry flight director who brings calm credibility to the mission management team. "In my personal life, before February I thought we had it pretty much knocked. ... I would have told you we understood what we were doing and we had mature processes and good hardware. And I think all of those assumptions have been shattered."

As chairman of the revamped mission management team, Hale will oversee the conduct of all phases of flight, from the pre-launch review needed to clear a shuttle for launch to the in-flight management of its mission.

At a news conference, Hale unveiled an ambitious plan to resolve shortcomings found by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board as well as issues identified by NASA personnel in the wake of the accident. New members will be added to the MMT, outside experts will be brought in to coach the managers on decision making skills and regular mission simulations will be held to test those skills in make-believe emergencies.

Hale is even looking into what shape table to use in the MMT conference room.

"Now you laugh," he said to chuckling reporters, "but when you talk about culture and how people subconsciously deal with hierarchy and where they fit within an organization and whether they feel comfortable in bringing things up, things like the shape of the table matter.

"Being trained as an engineer, I'm wishing I'd taken more sociology classes in college. I'm learning a lot, I think we're all learning a lot in this arena and we're committed to opening lines of communication and making sure people get their dissenting opinions and minority opinions on the table so we can consider them."

Some agency veterans have criticized the new MMT plan, saying the additional voices and opinions will make it more difficult to make a final decision. But Hale disagrees.

"I am convinced that we not only should, but must, come to an understanding of why it's OK to proceed in the face of a minority opinion," he said. "My basic model is consensus. We will bring the person from the organization that's got the concern and we should be able to demonstrate in a technical, analytical, engineering sense why it's safe to proceed or we shouldn't proceed. I don't know any other way to do that.

"I will tell you I get resistance from some of the NASA alumni league who operated at a different time and a different culture who think this is not the right thing to do, who think we'll never fly again if we go down this road too far. So there is that element of folks out there. But I think we need to go down the road as far as we can to make sure that we fly safely. Because just going to fly, there's been a lot of noise in the system about launch schedules and launch dates and we've gotta go do this to make the launch schedule, you know. We have to make sure when we get ready to fly we have done everything we can to make sure it's safe."

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board was sharply critical of MMT operations during Columbia's ill-fated mission. Contrary to NASA's own rules, the MMT, under chairman Linda Ham, did not meet every day and did not seriously debate the results of a hurried analysis that mistakenly concluded Columbia was not seriously damaged by a foam debris strike during launch. Despite an almost complete lack of hard data about the possible threat posed by the strike, the MMT quashed efforts by lower-level engineers to obtain spy satellite imagery that might have revealed the extent of the damage.

Hale today vowed to learn from the mistakes of the past. And he left little doubt he believes the management culture at NASA needs to change.

"I have to say, STS-107, the Columbia flight, has been a significant emotional event in my life and I think in the life of everyone in the agency, certainly in the shuttle part of the agency," he said. "We had many of our assumptions and concerns shattered on Feb. 1.

"Those of us who lived through the events of this past spring have had our lives change in ways that are going to affect our decisions and our thought processes for years to come. We have come over the course of several months of introspection and analysis to a new understanding. In particular, the first thing we have to get out on the table is we were not good enough. We did not do what is necessary to keep the Columbia crew safe. And that is something we have to live with as a legacy that will compel us to do the right thing for future shuttle flights and for future human exploration of space."

While final details remain to be resolved, Hale said the new MMT will include:

  • Seats for the directors of engineering at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.;
  • A seat for the director of propulsion technology at Marshall;
  • Seats for the head of safety and mission assurance at NASA headquarters and for the newly formed NASA engineering safety center at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.;
  • A single manager (Hale) for pre-launch and in-flight operations;
  • A re-emphasized rigor with permanent pre-defined agenda items covering all phases of damage assessment to make sure any possible sign of trouble is known to senior management and discussed as widely as possible;
  • A dedicated group of engineers to identify possible anomalies across all disciplines;
  • Participation by senior managers, not lower-level alternates;
  • Daily meetings

An internal review of the new MMT plan will be complete by Oct. 2. By the middle of the month, all MMT members will attend a class defining the precise roles and responsibilities of panel members. By the first week in November, the MMT will participate in a so-called "warm-up" simulation, the first in a series of regularly scheduled simulations to test MMT decision-making skills.

By the first week in December, Hale hopes to stage a three-day simulation involving the shuttle and the international space station program. Another major simulation including NASA's international space station partners is planned for January with monthly management sims scheduled after that through return to flight.

Long term, outside safety and management experts will be brought in on a regular basis as part of a continuing education program. Bringing in outsiders has never been NASA's strong suit and many at JSC resented the appearance of sociologist Diane Vaughn, an expert on the decision to launch the shuttle Challenger, at a Columbia Accident Investigation Board Hearing. She now is among the experts being sought by NASA.

"I didn't know who Dr. Vaughn was when she appeared at the CAIB hearing," Hale said. "I came away a little unimpressed with it but I said I ought to go get her book and look at what she's got to say. I sat down and read ("The Challenger Launch Decision") and when I got done with it, I said wow, there is a lot of good stuff here that I never thought about. And there is valuable place for us to learn some things.

"And since then, I think I've added a number of books to my bookshelf that are decision-making related that I'm thinking about a lot more these days. And we're going to have a number of these folks come and talk to us."

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