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NASA Chief vows to improve shuttle team

Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC
Permission granted by the Houston Chronicle

Aug. 3, 2003, 1:18AM

Under new management: Chief vows to improve shuttle team
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

The NASA official who will oversee critical day-to-day activities during
future space shuttle missions promised last week to bring new rigor to
the job, while improving the poor internal communications that
contributed to Columbia's fatal breakup. 

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which plans to make its
formal report on the causes of the shuttle accident public late this
month, already has placed NASA's management failings on an equal footing
with the hardware failures that triggered the Feb. 1 tragedy. 

As part of a July 2 shuttle program shake-up, NASA Administrator Sean
O'Keefe and his top aides named Wayne Hale as the new chair of the
mission management team, the high-level government and contractor
organization that supervises launch preparations and daily activities
while the shuttle and its astronauts are in space. 

"The events have shown us we didn't have the proper rigor and discipline
to understand what happened to us on Columbia, at the time it was
happening. That is unquestioned," Hale, a mechanical engineer and
seasoned former shuttle flight director, told the Chronicle. 

During Columbia's 16-day research mission, the team met just five times,
skipping four days early in the flight for the Martin Luther King Jr.
holiday weekend though most members were on duty with other

The hiatus marked the start of a crucial assessment of the impact of a
chunk of foam that broke away from the fuel tank just after liftoff and
hit the shuttle's left wing. 

Ultimately, the management team erroneously decided the foam strike did
not pose a safety threat, and stymied efforts by some lower-level
engineers to obtain images of Columbia's wing with military spy
satellites and ground-based telescopes. 

Investigators will conclude, however, that the foam blow probably caused
the wing breach that triggered Columbia's breakup. The board believes
NASA grew complacent about the hazard the debris posed because foam
flying off during launch is commonplace. 

When shuttle missions resume, possibly in March, an expanded management
team will meet daily, and members will be expected to discuss and even
challenge the daily status reports from colleagues. 

The meetings will be open to other space agency experts, including those
from the new agencywide safety and engineering organization that O'Keefe
is creating. Hale intends to circulate informally among lower-ranking
engineers as well, encouraging them to voice concerns. 

In Hale's previous assignment as the shuttle program's launch
integration manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral,
Fla., he was a member of the management team. He recalled that the
charter requirement that the group meet daily sometimes seemed pointless
when missions were unfolding smoothly because most of the officials had
so many other duties. 

The Columbia breakup has changed that outlook. The investigation board
has directed the space agency to consider its three space shuttles
"experimental" rather than "operational." 

"Now that we have been through this experience (of Columbia), it's clear
we have to take the time and emphasize that (management team
proceedings) are the No. 1 priority among the things we are doing, which
is to fly each mission safely," said Hale. "So we are going to take the
time. As long as I'm chair, we will meet every day, weekend and

Shuttle program officials are also considering the use of consultants to
help management team members improve their communications skills,
especially making lower-ranking experts comfortable with raising
dissenting views.

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