- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said yesterday more agency employees will be reassigned in the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

In a meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Mr. O’Keefe said the changes will be made to improve shuttle operations, but he declined to say who would be reassigned or when NASA would make the changes.

Last week, new shuttle program manager William Parsons reassigned three employees in the first reshuffling within the agency since Columbia disintegrated Feb. 1. They won’t be the final personnel changes.

“Stay tuned,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “If nothing else, you can clearly construe from all the moves here is that we’re not waiting for anything.”

In the most high-profile reassignment so far, Mr. Parsons last week replaced Linda Ham, a 21-year veteran who served as director of the management team for Columbia’s 16-day mission. Mr. Parsons also reassigned Ralph Roe, who was manager of the program’s vehicle engineering office, and Lambert Austin, manager of systems integration at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Mrs. Ham’s mission management team had oversight of Columbia’s daily operations and was responsible for the decision, now widely criticized, not to ask the Defense Department to photograph the shuttle with spy satellites during orbit. A group of NASA engineers decided the space agency should ask the Defense Department to photograph Columbia, but senior managers denied the request.

The mission management team also accepted the analysis from a NASA contractor that concluded a chunk of foam insulation could not have pierced Columbia’s thermal-protection tiles. A Jan. 23 report from the contractor said the shuttle could return safely.

Mrs. Ham’s reassignment wasn’t intended to punish her, Mr. O’Keefe said, but was a recognition that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had to make changes in the shuttle program.

Columbia’s disintegration explains less about the people involved and more about the shuttle program’s methods, and NASA needs to examine information better, he said.

“What did kind of break down in this process was how you vet the information gathered in the most constructive way at the most appropriate levels to bring in all those outside influences that can help achieve a solution. That clearly suggests that it ought to be elevated, or at least expanded, beyond the scope of what the present process calls for,” he said.

The space agency will make personnel changes to involve new people in the shuttle program to improve operations.

“Many of the other changes you see [are] a consequence of ‘Let’s get a fresh set of eyes … with a different set of disciplines,’” he said.

Mrs. Ham served as director of the shuttle program’s mission management team for the first time on Columbia’s doomed flight. Mr. O’Keefe characterized it as a temporary assignment.

“It wasn’t intended, as I remember the way this worked, to be something that was going to be a permanent condition anyway. This was [one] flight, and maybe a few others, that she was going to act in the capacity as chairing the mission management team,” he said.

He also said a test Monday that destroyed a carbon panel from the Space Shuttle Atlantis produced “scary” results and forced NASA to find a way to detect and repair damage both small and large.

At the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, researchers shot a 1.67-pound piece of foam insulation at a carbon panel to determine whether foam insulation pierced Columbia’s left wing, and led to the loss of the shuttle and the deaths of seven astronauts. The impact punched a hole 16 inches wide in the carbon panel.

Scott Hubbard, a member of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said test provided the “smoking gun” investigators needed to link the foam strike during the shuttle’s launch with its disintegration during re-entry.

In a similar test last month, investigators fired the same-size piece of foam at a carbon panel and caused only a series of cracks.

“When you see that wide a range of damage, it tells you that you’ve really got to look at this thing very carefully and very closely. Sometimes [damage] will be apparent and sometimes it won’t,” Mr.O’Keefe said.

The accident investigation board said June 27 that NASA must develop a method for astronauts to inspect and repair damage to the thermal-protection tiles in orbit before it launches the next shuttle.

The board plans to issue its final report on the Columbia breakup Aug. 26.

NASA has spent about $100 million so far to support the investigation into the loss of Columbia, Mr. O’Keefe said.

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