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The Washington Post July 03, 2003

3 Top Shuttle Managers Replaced

All Took Part in Key Decisions Leading Up to Columbia Disaster

By Kathy Sawyer and Eric Pianin

In a major shake-up of the space shuttle program, NASA yesterday announced the transfer or replacement of three top managers who participated in key decisions that led up to the Feb. 1 destruction of Columbia.

Linda Ham, who headed the mission management team during the flight, and Ralph R. Roe Jr., manager of the vehicle engineering office, both at Johnson Space Center in Houston, were among those replaced by shuttle program manager William Parsons, who assumed his own post only last month.

Ham and Roe were key players in decisions that have been targeted for criticism by investigators. These included the too-easy acceptance of a flawed analysis of what is now believed to have been a lethal debris impact during Columbia's launch, and the subsequent failure to obtain images of the orbiting space plane to check for possible damage.

Lambert Austin, a third engineer involved in the decisions, is also being replaced.

The moves precede by several weeks the release of the final report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which promises to devote much of its attention to flaws in NASA's fundamental management approach and structure.

The decision to reshuffle the shuttle program's senior personnel signals a new aggressiveness in NASA's attention to management issues as it anticipates the investigators' final report and prepares for a return to flight.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said in an interview that the agency accelerated the timetable for personnel changes and procedures because the board has been "strident and unambiguous" in making clear the changes they want to see. "We got it, heard the message. We're acting on it."

Ham and Roe earlier were the focus of a confrontation between NASA and the board. NASA had assigned the two to support the board's work -- essentially putting them in the position of investigating themselves, in the view of the board's chairman, retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr.

O'Keefe only reluctantly agreed to remove them from that role.

Yesterday, O'Keefe praised Ham and Roe. The changes, he said, represent "no reflection, in my judgment, on the competence or diligence or commitment or professionalism of anybody. . . . The All-Star draft has been conducted," he added, and Parsons "picked the folks he thought were exactly what he needed in order to press on and do this the right way."

The board has said it will focus on the deeper culture that undergirded the flawed decision-making process, and leave the fixing of blame to Congress and others.

Space policy analyst John Pike, of GlobalSecurity.org, a national security Web site, echoed the board's approach, saying, "I don't think the problem was incompetence on the part of specific individuals. The problem was the way the program was set up . . . organized, administered and funded."

But several lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), have said they believe individuals should be held accountable.

"You can't be burning up astronauts and just go along with the contractors," Hollings said last month. "The [lower level] engineers were sounding the alarm."

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan), said, "It is unfortunate that it has taken a tragic event like that . . . to necessitate some important changes to the shuttle program."

Parsons, in a teleconference with reporters, said, "I'm a former Marine, and I truly appreciate being held responsible and accountable. . . . Yes, there will be an emphasis on that, because that's my style."

Yesterday's personnel changes were the latest in a series NASA has made in key leadership posts since April, including replacing the heads of the Kennedy Space Center, where Columbia was prepared and launched, and Marshall Space Flight Center, which has responsibility for key shuttle components implicated in the accident. Former shuttle manager Ron Dittemore, who became a public figure in the immediate aftermath of the accident, resigned to take a job in industry. Parsons, then director of NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, replaced him

Ham, Roe and other key players in the mission have been unavailable for interviews since the accident.

The investigators believe the direct cause of the disaster, which killed seven astronauts, was the impact of a suitcase-size chunk of foam that flew off Columbia's external propellant tank 81 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 16 and struck the wing at more than 500 mph. Engineers detected the strike in a routine review of videos on the second day of the mission.

Among those who urged in vain that NASA obtain high-resolution images of Columbia was N. Wayne Hale Jr., currently manager of launch integration at Kennedy Space Center. He was named yesterday to be acting deputy to Parsons, a new position.

Roe will move to NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., to head a newly created safety and engineering division. Langley is the NASA facility where engineers engaged in a "what if" exercise during the mission that described in dire terms possible dangers that might result from the foam strike -- but their concerns never reached top officials.

Roe's appointment drew criticism in at least one quarter. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), chairman of the House space and aeronautics subcommittee, said he was troubled by the decision to shift Roe to the new post.

"Over the years, the NASA bureaucracy has not demonstrated a willingness for holding people accountable," he said.

Ham, the wife of an astronaut, was promoted to the job after a decade of impressive work as a flight director. Her responsibilities included making sure all of the shuttle program's requirements were met for each flight and chairing the mission management team while the ships were in orbit.

O'Keefe said she is so talented there is going to be a "bidding war" for her among NASA facilities.

Parsons, who brought in five new managers, said NASA had given him free rein to select the "best and the brightest" people from wherever he could find them. He named John Shannon, a flight director who has served as a liaison between NASA and the investigation board, to replace Ham as acting manager of flight operations and integration.

Also named yesterday were: Steve M. Poulos Jr., currently an engineering directorate official, to replace Roe as acting manager of the orbiter project office; John F. Muratore, most recently an engineering official at the Houston center, to replace Austin as manager of systems integration; and Edward J. Mango, previously a shuttle engineer and launch manager, to be deputy manager of the Orbiter Project Office, a new title in the evolving organization.


Copyright 2003, The Washington Post Company