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NASA Briefing, Part II

Aired February 2, 2003 - 18:00   ET



KYLE HERRING, NASA PUBLIC AFFAIRS: OK. Let's go to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida now for questions, please.

QUESTION: Marcia Dunn with the Associated Press for Ron.

What's your best estimate on the size of the debris that came off the tank during liftoff? Are you 100 percent it was foam and not ice or some other matter? And any idea on the size of the damaged area where it impacted?

DITTEMORE: I'm sure we have the relative size, to the best of our ability to judge, for the debris that shed the tank, and we can get that information for you, if you would talk to our public affairs representatives.

The impact damage to the vehicle was not determined. We believe that at the velocity that it was shed from the tank and at the incident angle that it hit the bottom of the orbiter that it did not represent any significance to us from a safety point of view.

And we don't believe that there was, from our review of the film, any hardware that came off the tank. We believe it was all the foam insulation.

QUESTION: Pat Duggins from NPR and WMFE.

Considering the wreckage and the condition of the wreckage on the ground, how useful is that going to be for your investigation, or are most answers going to come from telemetry?

DITTEMORE: We're hopeful that there are some clues remaining to be found through investigation of the evidence that we gather on the ground. We're hopeful that there are pieces of hardware that we can look at that will help us solve this puzzle.

And, as in any reconstruction of a catastrophic event, it's going to take some time. We're pulling together the experts in the country that do these types of things, and we are very hopeful that we will find the necessary information that will help us solve why "Columbia" was destroyed.

QUESTION: This is Chris Kridler from "Florida Today."

I realize that the STS-107 astronauts could not have spacewalked underneath the orbiter, but didn't NASA have a procedure that was tested in the late '70s that might have allowed an astronaut to go outside and repair the tiles? Can you discuss that?

DITTEMORE: Early in the program, we recognized that if we lost tile or multiple tile that we didn't have any repair technique, and we tried to develop such a technique. We finally abandoned pursuing that option. We just didn't believe it was feasible at the time.

We were also very concerned that -- as you send a spacewalk crewmember over the side of the vehicle and go underneath the vehicle, we are concerned that just the nature of them trying to position themselves in space underneath the vehicle could cause more damage than what we were trying to fix.

And so the risk was greater to send a crew over the side to try to do something that was very hard to do than it was to try to fix whatever problem that we thought was not a significant risk. So we made those trades and, finally, abandoned the idea of trying to have some tile-repair kit or tile-repair capability.

QUESTION: Tom Donovan, WPBF, West Palm Beach for Ron Dittemore.

In the history of the shuttle program, have you ever gotten reentry data either from the orbiter or on the ground that shows any other orbiter came close to or began to have attitude problems similar to the ones for the "Columbia" that you described earlier?

DITTEMORE: I wouldn't classify what I described as an attitude problem. I would say that the description I gave you was the flight control system reacting to a drag condition, and we have had conditions in the past where the vehicle sensed an atmospheric layer, difference -- difference in density altitude, and the flight control system would react to it as it came in through the atmosphere, and so those types of things are normal.

What's a little bit unusual about this one is that, even though it was within the capability of the flight control system to respond to this increased drag, the degree of which the elevons were trying to correct is outside our family of experience.

So, if you've flown 112 or 113 flights and this is the first one where the degree of elevon up motion to respond to the drag is outside of your previous database, that's unusual. And that would always trigger a response from our engineering teams to look at that carefully.

QUESTION: Ron, this is Stefan Coledan with "The New York Times" and "Popular Mechanics."

During the mission, were there any concerns or requests by the astronauts' families to take a better look for any damage caused by the debris during the launch after that was published? DITTEMORE: I'm not aware of any request outside the normal engineering teams and normal program management. It would be very unusual for the families to even be involved in such an event.

The families in our community and in the astronaut corps have a basic trust in the program, in our management, in our engineering expertise, just as we who manage the program have a great trust in the astronauts that fly and operate the machine. There's a tremendous respect on both sides. And the families would have great confidence and do have great confidence in our ability to do the right thing.

As we come into these types of situations, as I accept this position as the manager of the space shuttle program, it's my personal commitment to make the decisions that will provide safety to the crew members. It's my personal commitment to never launch or take risks or perform any activity that I believe where -- it is unacceptable risk to the crew member.

My goal and my objective is to always bring back the astronaut to their family. It's the highest priority I have. That's the trust that they have in me. And I have the trust in them that they will have confidence in our ability.

CABANA: Stepping into that rocket, going, flying into space, we all know what risk we accept. That's an easy risk to accept. The difficult risk to accept is strapping your friends into that rocket and launching them into space. And, believe me, that's -- none of the decisions that are made are taken lightly. They're taken with the gravest concern.

QUESTION: This is Peter Wallsten with "The Miami Herald."

Do you have any indications yet about the state of the crew compartment over the course of that five- to seven-minute period?

DITTEMORE: I have no information on the state of the crew compartment. All I know is, to the point that we lost communication with the vehicle, there was not a problem that was indicated on data -- on the data or in the voice communication from the crew.

QUESTION: Ron, this is Jim Banke,

Could you elaborate more on the sensors that are in the wing? For example, when the sensors are failing off, especially temperature sensors, and they just suddenly go to zero, there's no indication, even in a microsecond of data, that there was any temperature rise before those sensors failed, or is it simply an on/off kind of thing?

DITTEMORE: It's an/off type of thing. With instrumentation, when you -- when you get -- if you cut the wire, the actual indication doesn't slowly degrade. It's either on or off, and that's exactly what happens here.

And so, when you hear us say off-scale low or off-scale high, instrumentation will react that way when it just loses its capability to perform. And so, in this case, it was as if someone had cut the wire. It was immediately gone and did not give us any indication of an upward or descending trend.

But I did give you some information from other areas that do indicate that there was an elevated heating environment on the left side of the vehicle.

QUESTION: Ron, this is Craig Covalt with "Aviation Week."

Given the design of the landing gear doors, is it possible to have a door slightly ajar or a seal slightly unsealed, if you will, and not have a telemetry or cockpit indication of that indication on a door?

DITTEMORE: I don't believe so. And, in fact, as we stow the landing gear on the ground, that's performed before we even mate to the external tank. There's significant testing that is performed to verify that the doors are seated properly, and we have mechanical rigging that is part of the design that does not allow the door to become unseated, and so I do not believe that to be a problem.

QUESTION: Joanna Romeloitis (ph), CBC Television.

You say with every briefing, you become more confident in the information you're putting forward. Do you have a better sense today how long this investigation will take and how long these shuttle missions here at Kennedy Space Center will be delayed?

DITTEMORE: Of course, I'm searching for that answer just as you are. We're less than 36 hours into this investigation, and so we really cannot be expected to then offer a schedule of when we'll be complete. We can just say that we're going about our business methodically, professionally, with a lot of intensity, and we will brief you on a regular basis and keep you up to speed on what is occurring.

QUESTION: Ron, Keith Landry, Fox 35 News in Orlando.

Given that we've been talking a lot about the tile system and how there have been issues with that for many years, is NASA working on any long-term research to phase out the tile system? Any new technology, say, like a stealth-flight technology that might be better?

DITTEMORE: I wouldn't characterize that we have had tile issues for many years. In fact, we've flown this vehicle for over 20 years, and our tile system of insulation has performed wonderfully. True, we have some repair that we have to do from time to time. But it's a unique design. It's lightweight, and it performs its job extremely well in rejecting the heat.

What we have invested over the years is time and energy and money in trying to develop a stronger tile, where a tile has a stronger surface so that, when it is hit by debris, it doesn't penetrate the black surface of the tile.

We have been successful at doing that in some applications, and you can look at the back of the orbiter today and see some of the improvements in tile over the timeframe that we're talking about.

An older tile would be damaged during the launch phase, and every flight, as it comes back, we would have to repair or replace the tile. The newer tiles on the back end of the vehicle look shiny new, don't require any tender-loving care.

And so we have made advances in tile.

But the application of tile is different. You can't use the same type of tile in every location. It has to be designed for the underside of the vehicle because of its environment. The backside of the vehicle has a different tile design, a different density, a different weight. And so we have difficulty formulating a new tile with the right level of increased toughness or hardness and having it applied to the bottom of the vehicle.

We are continuing to investigate whether we can develop a stronger, tougher tile. We're spending money this year to do so. We've been spending money for many years to try to develop this technology. We haven't been successful yet to make an improvement over the existing tile, but we're making progress.

QUESTION: You said earlier that you get twice daily reports from the mishap response team, and I'm wondering if they reported to you how much debris has been recovered and if you could express that in either pounds or perhaps a percentage of the total vehicle that has been recovered.

DITTEMORE: We have not yet received that type of information from the team. Over the last 24 hours, the team has relocated to the -- to Shreveport. The major part of their focus was to get organized, to send teams out, to identify the debris, catalog it, make sure it had the right environmental protection, and start to move the debris to a staging area.

Over the coming days and week, we will get more information as to how much debris we have found, how large the pieces are, and we will begin to do that painstakingly laborious task of trying to catalog and piece these things together, and we have the good fortune of having experts from NTSB at our disposal who are used to doing these types of things in their line of work as they investigate airplane crashes, and they are helping us immensely in the same type of tasks.

But, up to this time, I don't have any information relative to size and numbers of debris.

QUESTION: Ron, this Todd Jurkowski with WKMG Local 6 in Orlando.

You talked earlier about how your team got together and tried to decipher what danger, if anything, from the debris that hit in the damage to the tiles. Can you elaborate a little bit more about what role the crew played on board the shuttle?

Was it possible that they could have possibly done spacewalks, and, looking forward, maybe will there be some provisions made that the crew will actually be able to do on-board inspections of the possible damage in future missions to try to avoid any second-guessing or questions about how bad the damage actually is?

DITTEMORE: See, I mentioned this to most folks yesterday, but we have no capability to inspect the bottom of the vehicle. We have no capability to repair tile damage on the bottom of the vehicle.

Even on this particular mission, we did not even have the remote manipulator system, or RMS, to look over the side underneath the bottom of the vehicle. And even if we did, its angle that -- its capability to look at the tile and discern damage is very, very limited.

So our ability to look at bottom of the vehicle is extremely limited, and we have no capability to repair. That's all I can say about that.

QUESTION: Dan Bilow (ph) with West TV (ph).

Ron, can you say how many seconds into the ascent was that minor debris impact, and is the progress that you are making today in this investigation in any way leading you away from that impact as a possible cause for what happened?

DITTEMORE: That impact occurred approximately 80 seconds after liftoff, and it's not clear to me yet that we have evidence that points to the fact that the debris was the root cause. I can't say that today.

We are gaining some confidence that it was a thermal problem, rather than some other nature, rather than a structural indicator. But it, again, is too early for me to speculate on what all that means.

And so I'd just request your indulgence as we continue to gather information. Just the difference between yesterday at this time and today has been significant, and I believe another 24 hours will be even more helpful.

So, as I continue to meet with you, I will give you the best information I have available to me and keep you informed, but I don't have any smoking gun. I don't have anything that I can tell you is the root cause.

Certainly, you've heard us talk and you can make your own judgments and speculate, but I'd caution you about that speculation.

We do have teams that are heavily concentrating on the orbiter wing, we have other teams that are looking very carefully at the external tank foam insulation, just as we have engineering teams looking at all of the other sub-systems.

We believe some subsystems will be ruled out as a cause fairly soon. Others will stay in our base that we're looking at for a longer time, and I'll keep you informed of which ones are the major subsystems that continue to be in our job jar as being more interesting to us from a root cause point of view than others.

QUESTION: Phil Long, "Miami Herald."

Ron, where is the debris being taken now for staging and where do you anticipate that it will be taken ultimately for analysis?

DITTEMORE: Our staging area will be the Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, and its ultimate location -- we haven't made a decision yet. We just know this first staging point will be our primary contact for this debris.

QUESTION: Elliott Kleinberg (ph), "Palm Beach Post."

Money issues aside, is there anything out there that you've been researching that might eventually make a better material than the tiles themselves, taking into consideration weight and the cost of the material?

DITTEMORE: Well, we are continually searching to see if there are -- there exists the right development of technology such that it has an application for this vehicle. We'll continue to search and investigate resources, whether it be the tile or other subsystems such that it can improve the safety and reliability of this vehicle.

I think that we have mentioned to you that it is our intent to fly this vehicle system for many years into the future, and so we are investing in the right technologies and searching for other technologies that would be of benefit to us. So the tile system is one, and there are others that are equally if not more important. So this is just one area of many that we are investigating.

HERRING: OK. That's -- excuse me. That's all the questions at the Kennedy Space Center. Let's move to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., please.

QUESTION: Sumana Chatterjee with Knight Ridder Newspapers.

About the post-launch review process, which engineering and technical teams and divisions were involved and was their conclusion unanimous that the debris impact did not pose a safety hazard, or was there dissension?

DITTEMORE: Let's see. Let me make sure I understand. You're talking about the external tank debris during ascent?


DITTEMORE: The predominant team will be the engineering teams related to the orbiter vehicle itself, and the types of disciplines are structures and mechanics, integration teams that understand the environment and the transport mechanisms between the external tank and the wing of the orbiter. You have thermal experts, tile experts, and it goes on and on. We also engage the external tank technical experts and the management of all the above.

Whenever we do a analysis of this type, not only do we engage the technical experts of all the disciplines and their management, but we also engage the operational and functional areas, the astronaut corps, our operations flight control arenas, our safety and quality and mission assurance experts.

And all these people were engaged, all of them heard the story, all of them reviewed it to their satisfaction, and the consensus -- unanimous consensus was that it was, as I represented to you earlier, it was not a significant event.

QUESTION: This is Frank Mourning (ph) with "Aviation Week."

Ron, you mentioned earlier that the temperatures in the cryo- tanks were nominal. Have you completely ruled out the cargo bay and the space head modules as any source of thermal problems?

DITTEMORE: We haven't ruled out anything up to this point. I share that information with you because that's the information that I have to look at myself. It does indicate that one data point shows that, on the inside of the payload bay, there does not appear to be an increasing thermal environment, whereas, on the left side of the vehicle, it was increasing.

We're still gathering more information, but, with that one piece of information, which is all we have today, it seems to indicate that the payload bay is not the area of focus. Have we ruled that out? No, we haven't. I'm sharing with you that information to help you go along with us as we try to decipher the evidence and try to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

We haven't ruled out anything. We're still looking. It's just information that both you and I and our teams need to understand more fully in the future.

QUESTION: Andrew Lawler from "Science" magazine.

Were there any other research missions planned for "Columbia," and had there been current discussions about mothballing "Columbia"?

DITTEMORE: At this -- at this point, I believe it's academic to talk about "Columbia."

CABANA: Do we have any other questions at headquarters?

QUESTION: Were there discussions in the past, though, about it recently, and were there research missions planned?

DITTEMORE: There were missions, if I understood your question right, and perhaps I didn't -- there were missions that were planned on "Columbia" in the future, that is correct, if that's the question you're asking me.

We had two missions in the future, one mission slated to go to the International Space Station in the latter part of this year and another mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in November of 2004.

And, because of the loss of this vehicle, that will impact the planning of those particular missions, and we'll have to go back and understand just what the options are going to be, and I'm sorry if I misunderstood your question.

HERRING: OK. That's all at headquarters. Let's go to the Marshall Space Flight Center for questions now, please.

QUESTION: This is Shelby Spires with "The Huntsville Times."

Ron, can you elaborate on the support you're getting in terms of engineering and document support from United Space Alliance and other contractors for the shuttle? Are they participating in this investigation, and are you satisfied with that participation to date?

DITTEMORE: We're getting help from all of our prime contractors, we're getting help from all of our field centers, all their technical experts, both on the public and private sector, and we're not wanting for anything at this point.

We're very pleased with the outpouring of support from both public and private and academia, and we appreciate all offers for advice and help, and we are consulting with those that offered their help in -- to determine if that particular expertise is something that we need to add to our team.

QUESTION: Kent Faulk, "Birmingham News."

What kinds of information are you collecting or have collected from Marshall, and does it include information about the launch and accident?

DITTEMORE: Let's see. From Marshall, predominantly, we're asking them to look at their subsystems, the major subsystems being the main engine, the solid rocket motor, the solid rocket booster -- or the booster system that attaches to the motor -- and then the external tank.

They're looking at all those major subsystems as methodically as we are looking at the orbiter here in Houston and other parts of the country, and we're pulling everything together as one team, and we will evaluate each of the major subsystems and try to determine if there is anything within that subsystem that would have contributed to the loss of "Columbia."

When we are sure that there is no information there that leads us to believe that that subsystem should be under suspicion, then we will declare that not to be a root cause and will -- we will wrap that particular activity up and concentrate on those that are still in our pool of information, pool of discussion.

QUESTION: Ron, Garrett Sheehan, WAFF 48 News in Huntsville.

What kind of role Marshall played in the specific investigation that happened right after takeoff as far as the debris coming down from the external tank?

DITTEMORE: Well, two major areas.

One is film review. They have experts in film review that help us from flight to flight.

And because the project management for the external tank is located in -- at the Marshall Space Flight Center, they were a major player in helping us understand the shedding of the debris, the makeup of the debris, its structure, its weight, how it would respond when it impacted the orbiter, et cetera.

So they were major players and helped us come to the conclusion that it wasn't a significant event.

HERRING: OK. We're done in Huntsville, and now standing by in Lufkin, Texas, we'll take some questions there. Try to limit it to five questions, please.

QUESTION: OK. This is Steven Yates (ph) with KRVA, KUEZ Radio in Lufkin.

We've been out in the field, and we have observed many of the debris on the ground, some of the 1,200-plus items of debris on the ground, with many law enforcement and volunteers guarding this debris, and with several school districts closed until the debris is removed. When do you anticipate the removal of the debris?

DITTEMORE: I don't have a particular time or date. We are working as fast as we can. We believe we have the right teams, the right individuals on the scene to help us identify, catalog, do the right environmental protection for both the people that are handling the debris and for those that live in the general area, and we're doing that cautiously but we're doing it as fast as reasonable to protect both the public and to protect the evidence.

And, I know that it may become some inconvenience to those in that general area and that's why at the beginning of this briefing I expressed my appreciation for those in the areas where the debris is heavily concentrated. We appreciate them very much for their patience, for their willingness to cooperate with us as we go through this difficult period.

But, we believe it is prudent for us to be safe. It is prudent for us to be cautious. It is prudent for us to protect the public. We do not want any individuals to be harmed in any way and so we're very cautious about it. I suspect that over the coming days we'll have a better handle on how to handle. We'll have a better idea on how to handle this debris that will expedite its pick up and arrival to our staging area. And so, if you can bear with us a little while longer, I think that any inconvenience will quickly come to an end.

QUESTION: This is Rich Opple (ph) with the "New York Times" in Lufkin. Can you say how many NASA officials you have in the field out here in East Texas, and has there been a mobilization within the agency of people normally in administrative or other jobs like that who are now involved in the recovery and locating the debris?

DITTEMORE: I estimate that we have over 100 NASA officials in the field. We have mobilized a number of folks both administrative, technical, engineering, and management from different field centers around the country to the staging area.

Our headquarters senior management is accompanying the accident investigation board to that area today and so it is a focal point for us and it is going to be a concentration of effort for the near term.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's all the questions from Lufkin.

HERRING: Thank you. We're going to come back here. We have time for about three questions. Let me start with Gil on the front row here.

QUESTION: Gil Kamari (ph), Israeli Television, Channel 10. In the name of all the Israeli media our concern is did you find the remains of one astronaut, two astronauts, maybe more, and are we going to give access to the special representative of the IDF the Israeli Defense Forces is sending you to examine the remains and to decide if they are Ilan Ramon's?

CABANA: We found remains from all the astronauts. It's still in the process of identification and we're working closely with representatives of the Israeli government to ensure that everything is done properly.

RITA COSBY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Rita Cosby with FOX News Channel. Ron, in a lot of the commercial flights there was a big concern particularly about wiring. We've been talking a lot about wiring the last hour and a half, capped on wiring, arching, causing fire, sparking. There was even an issue with the shuttle fleet in 1999 where they had grounded the shuttle fleet with concern of wiring. How much is that a possibility, given the fact you're saying thermal not structural?

DITTEMORE: 102, or Columbia, was one of the vehicles that had recently come out of a long period of wiring inspection, intensive wiring inspection and not only did we repair the wire, replace wires that were not repairable, we put protective covering through much of the vehicle. And so, we're confident that from a wiring standpoint that issue is not going to be the root cause.

It's something other than wiring. We believe it's something other than wiring. An onboard fire would not at this point give us the indications that we have on the left side of the vehicle. And so, that's not something that we're concentrating on, nor does it look like it's going to be anything that would go into our pool of investigative items that we think might be a cause. We don't believe that's an issue.


HERRING: I'm trying to find out if I'm going to have any information on that before we end the briefing here.

QUESTION: Carlos DeSalvo (ph) of the Associated Press for Ron. You mentioned earlier about the amateur video and photography you've gotten. Do you know at this point how much of that you received and what you have received how helpful has that been in trying to determine what happened to Columbia?

DITTEMORE: It's been helpful. We appreciate the public responding to our calls for information. Yesterday we received over 600 phone calls to our operations center here at the Johnson Space Center, and we received well over 200 e-mails. Half of the e-mails contained images and so the public has been very responsive in providing to us their information and all of that information is being poured over right now. We're looking at every piece of information.

We also have some reports, as I mentioned earlier, from the people on the West Coast who observed some events over California and Arizona, and we have written statements from them. We are talking with them on the phone.

If there are videos or still pictures, photographs that they have in their possession that they can allow us to have or e-mail to us, we are desirous to get that information and we are in contact with those that made the report on the West Coast and I believe we'll have that information today. We think that's important to us.

But just a wonderful turn out from the public just to help us gather information, and it's continuing to happen and we appreciate it.

HERRING: OK, just a couple of programming notes. First, there's no official word yet on a memorial service. I expect that fairly quickly before the day is over on details about that.

The next briefing just to give you guys an idea of the briefing schedule, we are now planning to have briefings twice a day beginning tomorrow, the next briefing scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Eastern time. That would be from NASA headquarters and then we would be back tomorrow at about the same time. We're targeting 3:30 Central, 4:30 Eastern time. Recognizing that these gentlemen are part of the meetings that are taking place twice a day, so we have to be a little flexible on the start times of our briefings.

Also, some of the words that Ron was passing on about the photographs and video that folks are finding or are able to provide to us, there is a phone number I'd like to pass on to you again as I did yesterday. That phone number is 281-483-3388. I know several news media, a lot of the news media, are helping us put that word out and that phone number out.

There's also an e-mail address for digital images and that e-mail address is That has been changed from the lengthy one that we provided for you yesterday so it would be helpful if you could use that.

There's also a physical address that folks can mail items to that are more lengthy such as video or non-electronic images, and that physical address is also showing on the screen for those watching NASA Television. The address is Emergency Operations Center, Mail Code JA17, and that's Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas 77058.

So, we'd appreciate your help with that, and again I'd like to thank both of these gentlemen for taking the time today and your patience for recognizing our time on this.

Thank you.


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