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Orlando Sentinel (Florida) July 04, 2003

Further Changes Foreseen At NASA

The Accident Report Will Trigger More Moves, Shuttle Chief William Parsons Said

By Gwyneth K. Shaw

WASHINGTON -- Space-shuttle program manager William Parsons' sweeping reorganization of his staff is the most significant move made inside NASA in the aftermath of the Feb. 1 Columbia accident and the most extensive transformation since the aftermath of the Challenger disaster more than 17 years ago.

But in shifting three middle managers away from the day-to-day operations, Parsons has raised many more questions than he answered. The biggest: Are the moves announced Wednesday the beginning of a fundamental change in the management structure at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration? And, if so, will they go far enough to satisfy Congress?

"Those are key positions. Those are major changes," said Jud Lovingood, deputy manager of the Marshall Space Flight Center shuttle office when the Challenger exploded in 1986. "You don't do that unless you think there is a real need. That's a cleansing."

Lovingood, who still lives near the Marshall center in Huntsville, Ala., said there also was a shake-up after the Challenger accident. The changes Parsons has made are unmistakably related to the fallout from the Columbia disaster, Lovingood said.

MIDDLE MANAGERS ON MOVE

Ralph Roe, the shuttle program's chief engineer, is moving to Langley Research Center in Virginia to head a new safety and engineering office that will be independent from the program but expected to provide an additional level of oversight.

Linda Ham, the program-integration manager and head of the Mission Management Team that oversaw Columbia's flight, will move out of that chair and into another position, NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said Thursday, although it's still unclear what her new role will be.

Austin Lambert, manager of the systems integration office, is moving into a technical adviser's role.

Wayne Hale, who had just moved into the job overseeing shuttle launches at Kennedy Space Center in February, is returning to Houston to become Parsons' deputy, essentially a combination of positions. Hale, a longtime flight director at the Johnson Space Center, was one of the people inside the shuttle program who pushed for military satellites to take pictures of Columbia to check for damage.

Ham killed the request Jan. 22 for reasons that remain unclear. In the aftermath of the disaster, that decision has been hotly debated, and the independent board investigating the accident and NASA agree that the agency needs to obtain such photos on all future flights.

Roe, Ham and Lambert also were involved in the discussion about whether a chunk of foam that flew off Columbia's massive external tank and hit its left wing nearly 82 seconds after launch could be a danger to the orbiter and the crew. Ultimately, shuttle managers accepted an analysis that said the foam strike was not a "safety of flight" issue -- a decision that investigators now think was horribly wrong.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board's report, expected within the next month or so, will not single out anyone for blame, a source close to the board said. But it will lay out the facts of what happened during the mission, and "it's not necessarily a pretty story," the source said.

John Pike, a space policy expert and head of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based think tank, said he wasn't surprised at the initial round of changes. But the members of the program -- from former manager Ron Dittemore on down -- were essentially doing what they were supposed to under the existing setup, he said.

EXPERT: NEED MORE CHANGES

"Anytime a ship in the Navy runs aground, the captain is relieved of command. And I think that basically you would simply expect that after an accident like this you would want the program to be under new management," Pike said. "But you know, the problem with the shuttle is not a few bad managers, it's a bad program structure. I think that if they don't reorganize the program and reevaluate funding and priorities and direction, that within a few years, they will be right back to where they were in January of this year."

The reorganization is not finished, NASA spokesman Hartsfield said Thursday, and Parsons himself noted that even more changes will be set in motion by the board's recommendations. Retired Adm. Harold Gehman, the board's chairman, has said that a large portion of the report will deal with NASA's management deficiencies.

Wednesday's announcement, which came out of Houston, can also be seen as muscle-flexing by Parsons in his new role. NASA chief Sean O'Keefe has staunchly defended agency employees, including Ham, saying their decisions were "judgment calls" and it's up to the board to determine whether they were right.

While he has been generally reluctant to discuss the long-term fallout, at a May 14 Senate hearing O'Keefe sharply challenged the assertion of several senators that there will be no accountability for the decisions made during Columbia's 16-day mission.

"There will be accountability here," he said. "There is no question about it. This will not be ambiguous about who is responsible at the end of the day."

Yet there is still no indication when -- or if -- that promise of accountability will translate into major personnel changes.

A Republican congressional aide, who asked not to be identified, said the changes seem to be more evidence of NASA's accelerated pace for returning the three remaining shuttles to flight. The moves appear to be a pre-emptive strike against the investigative board's criticism of shuttle managers -- and a step toward the wholesale management changes the board is expected to suggest.

It's impossible to tell whether the changes will make a significant difference, or whether they will placate members of Congress who may be looking for a more pointed punishment, the aide said.

"The point from NASA's perspective, I think, is to inoculate themselves so that months from now when you actually start seriously talking about return to flight, they're going to say 'Look, we've done this, we've done that, we've set up this organization,' " the aide said.

That may not be enough for lawmakers. It may not be enough to satisfy the board's recommendations. Gehman has said repeatedly that it's the management structure that's at fault, and that changing the chairs in which people are sitting won't change the outcome of their decisions.

Pike, of GlobalSecurity.org, said the trail of responsibility goes all the way up the chain, reaching even to the White House, which controls the agency's budget and ultimate fortunes.

"There's more than enough blame to go around -- and I don't want to fix blame, but I do want to fix the problem," Pike said. "And if you think this is just a NASA middle-manager problem, then you've not fixed it."


Copyright 2003, Sentinel Communications Co.