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Space

The Testimony of
Admiral Harold Gehman, USN (Retired)
Chairman, Columbia Accident Investigation Board
16850 Saturn Lane
Houston , TX 77058

Statement of Harold W. Gehman, Jr Chairman Columbia Accident Investigation Board Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation United States Senate March 20, 2003

Good afternoon Mr. Chairman, Senator Hollings, distinguished Members of the Committee, ladies and gentlemen. It is a pleasure to appear today before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. I thank you for inviting me and for the opportunity to provide an update on the progress of the investigation into the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her courageous crew of seven. My intent during my testimony today is to provide the Committee with the latest information on the progress and direction of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and its almost seven weeks of investigation. I am prepared to explore any area in which you or the Committee are interested; however, in order to be concise I've limited my prepared remarks to these three areas: The Board itself The accident investigation Matters beyond the initiating event

I. THE BOARD ITSELF Within a few hours after the accident, Administrator O'Keefe activated the accident contingency plan and the standing mishap board that was established in accordance with NASA procedure-procedures that were adopted based upon lessons learned from the Challenger accident. The standing board, excluding the Chairman, had seven members appointed by position, not name. These are positions such as the Commander of the Air Force Safety Center, the Commander of the Navy Safety Center, the Director of the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Accident Investigation and the Division Manager of the Department of Transportation's Aviation Safety Division, among others. These experts are all Federal government employees. They are arguably some of, if not the, most experienced and knowledgeable aircraft accident investigators in the world. To augment this standing board, we immediately started adding non-government, non-NASA people, starting with me. As the need for additional expertise and the amount of actual work grew, I added, in my capacity as Chairman of the Accident Investigation Board, a total of five more non-government, non-NASA Board members, and removed one of the original NASA Board members. This brings us to where we are now: 13 Board members, which just happens to be the same as the number of members of the Rogers Commission. Only one of these professionals has any major connection with NASA. In addition, six of the thirteen Board members, including the chairman, are not government employees. Let me stress again, that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is a truly independent investigative body. I also want to emphasize that our Board members are investigators, not passive listeners. We are in session seven days a week and have been since the first week. We have assembled a staff of over 100 personnel that is comprised of just a handful of NASA employees. We are following many precedents set by the Rogers Commission, including using the Department of Justice to archive records and using frequent public hearings to allow our progress to be monitored by all of our constituents. We are taking all possible advantage of every Federal agency with applicable expertise. These agencies include, among others, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, just to name a few. Mr. Chairman, as a Naval aviator, I am sure you will appreciate the significance of the Board's intention to take advantage of the special tools available to us under the rubric of an accident or safety investigation. We are gaining insights into areas to which we would not be privy under other investigatory models. The benefit of this process will flow directly to you and your Committee in the form of a deeper and much more complete view into Shuttle processes, management, safety programs and quality assurance.

II. THE ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION The Board is making good progress in gaining a precise picture of the environment and forces acting on the Columbia in her last ten minutes of flight. Through detailed and exhaustive scientific and engineering analysis and through just plain hard work, we are determining the facts related to the loss of the Shuttle and her crew. I wish we could tell you today that we know exactly what fault or series of faults caused this catastrophe, but we cannot. We are simultaneously building six separate "pictures" or scenarios of what happened on that tragic February morning. These "pictures" may be labeled: The aerodynamic scenario The thermodynamic scenario The detailed system timeline from telemetry The photographic and video graphic scenario The story the debris analysis tells us The story the records of maintenance and modification work tell us.. If we can, first of all, be certain we have determined each picture accurately, we will then overlay the scenarios one on the other to find the best fit. That best fit will lead us to either determine with some certainty where the failure occurred, or if necessary, enable us to deduce with some lesser degree of certainty where the failure probably occurred. While we are building these six pictures, we are simultaneously developing and testing a number of hypothetical failure scenarios. The number of these "hypotheticals" varies between about six and ten. This number changes because we add and discard these failure scenarios as we learn more. These scenarios are helping us build our "investigation roadmap" and are particularly useful in determining what testing needs to be done. From each scenario we determine what answers, facts, analysis, or tests we need in order to prove or disprove the tenets of that particular scenario. The famous foam impact testing is one example of this process. All of our work to date points us toward a failure of the Shuttle thermal protection system that led to high heat getting into the left wing, in the vicinity of the left landing gear wheel well and other regions. Several key pieces of accident debris are beginning to show some directionality of that heat flow. Slowly, as we find and process more debris, we will continue to refine the directionality signs and clues until they line up and, hopefully, point to the exact place or places where failure occurred. III. MATTERS BEYOND THE INITIATING EVENT Defining the point of the origin and timing of the failure sequence is extraordinarily important, but they will not by themselves satisfy our requirement to find both the direct and contributing causes of this accident. We also must determine why and how this failure process got started in the first place. In preparation for that day, when we know more about the failure mechanism, we are looking in parallel at all related processes that pertain to the Shuttle system as a whole. These processes include, but are not limited to: safety, quality assurance, maintenance practices, turnaround processes, preparations to launch, work force issues, budgets, and the functioning of all boards and committees that NASA has set up to ensure inter-disciplinary coordination. Mr. Chairman, the Board intends to draft a final report that places this accident in context. By "in context" I mean we will attempt to build a complete picture of how this accident fits into the complicated mosaic of budget trends, the myriad previous reviews of NASA and the Shuttle Program, the implementation of Rogers Commission recommendations, changing Administrations and changing priorities, previous declarations of estimates of risk, work force trends, management issues and several other factors--each of which may contribute to a safer program to a greater or lesser degree. We on the Board are fully aware that when our work is finished, your work will be just beginning. We have set a high intellectual bar for the Board to clear. That bar is this: our report will be of sufficient depth and breadth that it will serve as the basis for a complete public policy debate on the future of the Space Shuttle Program. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that this debate will be about the product of our investigation and not the process. We believe we can both find the cause of this accident and relate it to all these other issues. While we are at a disadvantage not yet knowing the direct cause of the accident, as the Challenger Commission did by this time and thereby had clear direction as to which processes to focus on, we are actively working in and through all areas more or less simultaneously. As we find items relevant to the return to flight decision, we will release those findings in the form of an advisory, or recommendation, similar to the way the National Transportation Safety Board does in its aircraft accident investigations. These will both keep the Congress, the Administration, and the public informed of our progress and allow for interim work at NASA to proceed as quickly as possible. Last week I spoke briefly to Expedition Six Commander Ken Bowersox, Flight Engineer Nikolai Budarin and NASA ISS Science Officer Don Pettit, the three astronauts on orbit in the International Space Station. They encouraged me and the Board to get it right and not to worry about them. From where these gallant explorers now wait, they probably have a much better view than do you or I. They are truly dedicated to Man's continued journey into space. The Board hopes to wholeheartedly echo that dedication. Mr. Chairman, speaking for the 13 dedicated experts on the Board and the thousands of people working to solve this riddle, I can assure you, the families, and the American people that we will spare no effort to get to the bottom of this. We have all the assets and expertise we need, or we know where and how to get it. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. This concludes my prepared remarks and I look forward to your questions.



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