By Sandi P. Beason
Bill Parsons, shuttle program manager for NASA, said he and his team are working to get things in order for the next manned flight into space.
Manned flights could resume in September or October, if safety testing goes as planned, he said.
“Today is the (Columbia tragedy) anniversary,” he said Sunday. “For all of us, the most emotional moment was when we realized we broke the contract with the people we care a lot about – our astronauts. They are people who trust us. They were supposed to get on this vehicle and fly into space and they expected to come back home to their families, and we let them down.”
On the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia was scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center, but instead of the expected end to its mission, it shattered into thousands of pieces over Texas and Louisiana. All seven crew members were killed.
Parsons, the former director of the Stennis Space Center, said that event brought the shuttle program to its knees. Parsons replaced former shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore – who was manager at the time of the Columbia tragedy – when Dittemore made a personal decision to leave NASA for a job in private industry.
“We have a plan, an implementation plan,” Parsons said. “We've also put together a very intricate schedule and we plan to get a safe return to flight.”
Like any other plan, he said, there are things that have to happen before flights will resume.
“Things may happen in May and June, and if they don't go the way they're planned to, it will cause issues with the launch date,” he said. “The plan is (about) things we have to do to safely return to flight. There is a huge challenge in front of us. Our testing has to back up our analysis, and if the testing shows our analyses were incorrect, we may have to revamp things and change our hardware to make sure it's safe.”
Before the tragedy
The Columbia tragedy put a halt on space missions, he said.
“NASA had started having pretty regular launches,” Parsons said. “Things were going along as we had envisioned for years.”
The Columbia flight had been delayed for various reasons, he said, but eventually it flew on a 16-day lab mission to do work outside the international space station.
“It was really devoted to science,” he said. “This was one of those final missions to do in that manner. When we didn't complete the mission and we didn't bring our astronauts home, it was devastating.”
The loss of the space shuttle and its crew set in motion NASA's contingency plan, which had been developed in the years after the loss of Challenger, more than a decade earlier.
“You don't want to be prepared for something like this, but the agency was prepared,” he said. “When it happened, we started the contingency plan which notified the White House situation room … and people in certain positions.”
During the ensuing investigation, “we were grounded and not flying, and trying to figure out ways to support the international space station.”
“When the accident occurred, we focused first on recovering debris and understanding what caused the accident,” he said.
The investigation revealed that a piece of foam insulation tore a hole in Columbia's left wing during liftoff on Jan. 16, 2003, and allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter during re-entry with deadly consequences. What remains of the shuttle is packed away in boxes at Kennedy Space Center.
“We accept, comply with and embrace the Columbia accident investigation report,” he said. “It was a pretty in-depth document.”
Changes in the program
Parsons said that after a couple of months of discussion, officials at NASA offered him the job of shuttle program manager.
“It is one of the most important things I believe NASA does,” he said. “I couldn't say no.”
At the Stennis Center, he was working “one of the more highly technical jobs in the state.”
“I had to leave that after 10 or 11 months and take on the huge task of getting the shuttle program back on track,” he said. “I changed a lot of personnel out. Something I had to do, I had to assess my personal strengths, and assess where the program was weak.”
More than five key positions were changed out, he said, and new positions were created. Wayne Hale was hired as Parsons' deputy to lead the mission management team, and John Muratore was hired as system engineer.
“We had allowed our skills to degrade over time,” he said. “We had to update our analysis tools and models. We had to bring up to speed our understanding of where we had made a decision on analysis and see if there were tests we could do.”
One problem, he said, was there was no reinforced carbon carbon – or RCC – on the shuttle's nosecap and the leading edge of its wings.
“RCC can withstand 3,000 degrees,” he said. “RCC is heavier and much more tough than tile. Tile is lighter and very, very good for thermal control and helping with heat. But where you've got the hottest temperature, you need to get RCC.”
NASA didn't have a lot of testing on RCC, he said.
“Immediately, not only through film analysis, but through hitting RCC with the external tank foam, we found it could cause damage that could be critical and not allow the orbiter to return,” he said.
On the right track
Parsons said the program has improved every day.
“The program has morphed,” he said. “The accident causes people to step back and say, What did we do wrong?' Then we started working on it. Through our own investigation and observation, we found things we needed to do that were more global changes. We found improvements we would make which we did.”
There are still many things to do to fix problems and “raise the bar,” he said.
“We don't sit on our laurels that we've fixed one problem that created the Columbia accident,” he said. “(Columbia) caused us to step back and say, They trusted us and we let them down.' We're reminded of that trust and we owe it to them to get it right.”