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Explaining Thirty Years Of Fudge
Sacramento - May 02, 2003
While a great deal of the testimony before the Columbia Accident Investigation Board has been newsworthy to non-specialists -- and the Board has by now made it plain that it does not intend to serve as the blind puppets of NASA's officials -- nothing in it up until April 23 could be described as "explosive".
But that is the only possible word that can be applied to the testimony on that day by Robert F. Thompson, the Shuttle program's manager during the crucial period from 1970 until just after the first Shuttle flight in 1981. Thompson delivered a whole series of bombshells on a wide variety of subjects, which can be roughly grouped into two categories.
The first is his casual official confirmation of the astonishing degree of deliberate, flat-out dishonesty that went into NASA's tactics to persuade Congress to approve the Shuttle program in the first place -- plus his apparent revelation that, to some extent, President Richard Nixon himself collaborated in it.
It has been known for some time that, in order to persuade a reluctant Congress to reject Sen. Walter Mondale's campaign against the Shuttle, NASA told outrageous distortions about the frequency with which it could be launched, and thus its cost-effectiveness.
One anonymous former NASA official told a "Time" magazine reporter shortly after the Challenger disaster, "We hated to do it, but we were getting SO many votes." But no NASA official, past or present, ever openly admitted the fact -- until Thompson.
CAIB member John Logsdon pointed out that in May 1971 the Office of Management and the Budget had placed a mandatory cap of $5.5 billion on the Shuttle's development cost -- and that NASA's "ultimate presentation, at least to the White House level, said you could do that" and fly the Shuttle "with an operating cost of $118 a pound (of payload). I'm curious where those numbers came from particularly the operating cost."
Thompson's response was, first, to casually admit that NASA had lied to Congress about development costs -- apparently with the connivance of President Nixon and the OMB:
"In December 1971, when [then NASA Administrator] Jim Fletcher and [then associate administrator] George Low went to San Clemente to present the final recommendation to President Nixon, we prepared a letter that George and Jim took with them...
"That letter said that we felt we could build the Shuttle for a total cost of $5.15 billion [in 1971 dollars]... but that it would take another billion dollars of contingency funding over and above that to handle the contingencies that always develop in a program like this.
"So you need to budget $6.15 billion...we could build it and fly it by 1979 if everything went perfectly, but that [another] $1 billion and 18 months ought to be planned in the program because that's probably what will really happen and we'll probably fly it in early 1981. That's in the document...
"President Nixon approved it... Bill Lilly, who was comptroller of the agency [NASA] at that time, took that letter and started his negotiations with OMB. When he finally got around to getting it through the OMB cycle, they took the letter and said, 'We'll take the $5.15 billion, but we won't give you the [additional] $1 billion because we never budget contingencies. We'll hold you to the 1979 launch date...and we'll put it in the '73 budget at those numbers.'...
"I went back and talked to Bill Lilly. He said, 'Shut up. You got your program. Go on about your business.' So we did... The Shuttle was picked as a program to be monitored by OMB, and they actually put five or six people from the OMB into my office level here at the Johnson Space Center...It's a pretty complex job to keep up with the true cost of a development program like the Shuttle. In fact, after three years, OMB quit and went home."
In short, the president and his OMB both knew that the Shuttle's likely development cost would be a billion dollars more than what Congress was led to believe by the White House.
Remarkably, Thompson revealed all this in the course of proudly telling the Columbia Board that the Shuttle, contrary to traditional belief, had not overrun its real (if secret) original cost estimate (taking inflation into account), and had not been delayed beyond its real (if secret) planned launch date.
This, however, is a good deal less shocking than his next statement, on the origins of that $118-per-payload-pound operating cost estimate:
"At the time that we were selling the program at the start of Phase B, the people in Washington got a company called Mathematica to come in and do an analysis of operating costs. Mathematica discovered that the more you flew, the cheaper it got per flight."
"Fabulous… So they added as many flights as they could. They got up to 40 or 50 flights a year. Hell, anyone reasonable knew you weren't going to fly 50 times a year.
"The most capability we EVER put in the program is when we built the facilities for the [External] Tank at Michoud -- we left growth capability to where you could get up to 24 flights a year by producing tanks, if you really wanted to get that high. We never thought you'd ever get above 10 or 12 flights a year.
"So when you say, 'Could you fly it for X million dollars?', some of the charts of the document I sent you today look ridiculous in today's world...Those costs per flight were not the cost of ownership... We didn't try to throw the cost of ownership into that. It would have made it look much bigger. So that's where those very low cost-per-flight numbers came from. They were never real."
In short, the Shuttle's program manager during that period has now told the CAIB that the figures on yearly cost frequency and cost per flight that NASA gave Congress -- which were crucial to the conclusion that the Shuttle program as a whole would be more cost-effective than unmanned expendable boosters -- were deliberate distortions.
Thompson also said that President Nixon, at least, had decided to back the Shuttle for reasons other than its supposed economy as a launch vehicle -- but had kept his real reasons secret from Congress:
"In 1969, driven by the fact that the government works on five-year budget plans, it was then incumbent on NASA to put some dollars into the out years for where they wanted to go post-Apollo...If something wasn't done, we were going to go out of the manned spaceflight business. That simple.
"So the Vice President at the time, Spiro Agnew...chaired the Space Council and they worked for about six months...They looked at a manned Mars expedition, they looked at a follow-on lunar program, they looked at a low-Earth-orbital infrastructure program, and they looked at getting out of the business...
"They made the decision to have a low Earth orbital infrastructure program...It never got announced like Kennedy announced the lunar program, but that decision was made by the President on the advice of the Space Council.
"We then undertook obviously to build the Shuttle first, and then a modular, zero-gravity space station second...As the thing evolved, we started with the Shuttle, and the requirements for the Shuttle were driven 99 percent by what we wanted to do to support the space station. It also happened to give the Air Force the kind of payload volume and the kind of capability they wanted, although they really wanted to be at higher orbits for their work
"So the Air Force came in and said, 'We will plan to use the Shuttle, and we will also take on the task of building the Interim Upper Stage, which was part of the low-Earth-orbital infrastructure. So NASA embarked on the Shuttle. It wasn't necessary to commit to a space station at that time because the Shuttle had to be built and operational before you commit to the space station, and the President at that time -- Nixon -- had other things on his mind. He didn't get up and make a great big speech about low-Earth-orbital infrastructure.
"So now a lot of myths have grown up about how we stumbled between a space station and the [Shuttle] Orbiter, and how we wanted to do an Orbiter this way and then an orbiter that way. That's not the way it happened at all. It was pretty orderly planning. It was a decision to go to the low Earth orbital infrastructure -- let's have a shuttle, then let's have a modular zero-gravity space station...
"When Nixon made the decision...there was no big national-level discussion of it or national-level announcement of it or national-level description of it. So a lot of attention was not drawn to it.
"Part of the reason was that politically you were proposing to do something that was considerably less expensive, less effortful, less glamorous than the Apollo program.
"So compared to what Kennedy did with the Apollo program, announcing a low earth orbital infrastructure wasn't that sexy, so to speak. Plus the personality of the man -- he wasn't that interested in space. So he didn't make a big to-do about it."
But Nixon's failure to "make a big to-do" about his real plans for the Shuttle included never even telling Congress about his true reason for backing it -- and letting them endorse it entirely because of outrageously phony figures about its supposed economic efficiency as a reusable launcher, rather than on the basis of its real (but secret) purpose as the support vehicle for a space station that Congress had already made it clear it was very skeptical about backing.
The second keg of dynamite exploded by Thompson at the hearing involved his flat-out announcement that it had never been designed -- and probably could never be designed -- to endure pieces of foam insulation regularly falling off its External Tank, and his repeatedly expressed outrage that the Shuttle's current program managers have tolerated this.
Major Gen. John Barry of the Columbia Board asked Thompson, "Was the Space Shuttle designed to accept debris hits from foam, either at the RCC [wing-edge panels] or at the belly with the tiles?"
Thompson relied, "No. The spec for the [External] Tank is that nothing would come off the Tank forward of the 2058 ring frame [low down on the Tank], and it [the Shuttle] was never designed to withstand a 2-pound mass hitting at 700 feet per second. That was never considered to be a design requirement."
Aaron Cohen, the Shuttle Orbiter's project manager for 1972-1982, added: "In the first early flights, we were concerned about ice coming off the tank...because we knew ice would do very serious damage."
But Thompson added: "But usually ice under the [foam] insulation was our principal concern -- where you would get a crack in the insulation, you had cryopumping under there, you'd get ice formed up under it, and a chunk of ice and insulation come off"
"We must have had... 15 [meetings on this] -- we had so many meetings on trying to make sure we didn't have ice, we called them the Ice Follies meetings."
Reminded that there is still a team that inspects the External Tank before launch for ice, Thompson replied, "I don't know what they're doing today...I was pretty sure we did ultrasonic testing on the tank foam insulation, looking for any voids. We carefully did visual inspection. We put together a very comprehensive ice team that walked up and down the vehicle just before liftoff...We even talked one time about building a great big building around the whole thing and environmentally controlling it, but we decided that probably wasn't necessary."
Thomspon then revealed that the early Shuttle teams were far more concerned about ice or form fragments hitting the carbon RCC panels on the wings' leading edges -- exactly the thing thought to have been fatally damaged on Columbia -- than they were about impacts on the Shuttle's tiles:
"We paid an awful lot of attention to making sure that nothing came off, because we knew that if we fractured the carbon-carbon on the leading edge of the orbiter, it was a lost day.
"We could take a fair amount of damage on the silica tiles and still be all right, but it was a maintenance problem...People have gotten locked up on the fragile nature of the silica tiles.
"The silica tiles are fragile to damage, but they're actually pretty forgiving. You can take a lot of damage right there. You cannot take any damage that knocks a hole in the carbon-carbon leading edges."
George Jeffs, the Shuttle program manager before Thompson, interjected that the RCC panel designers had gone to some lengths to make them "as strong as possible...We really had a rugged RCC...They're taking a pretty good [strain] load up in that front end. So they're not wussies."
Thompson: "They are strong, but they're still a ceramic. What you don't do is hit a ceramic with a real sharp, high-energy low-time blow. Anything going 700 feet per second -- even if it's a soft piece of insulation -- if you look at the force-time curve that we put onto that insulation, we didn't do a dead-chicken test [i.e., firing any significantly heavy objects at the RCC panels with a gas gun]. We knew well that you could knock it off if you hit it with enough kinetic energy."
He seemed surprised that his successors had not been aware of this fact, and added: "There was never any thought that those [RCC] panels would withstand a 20,000 foot-pound kinetic energy strike [such as Columbia's foam fragment produced]. They were not designed for that. The whole intent was not to let it happen....I wouldn't know how to design the leading edge of that wing to take a 20,000 foot-pound kinetic energy strike."
Milton Silveira, his deputy program manager, said, "Not many airplanes are designed that way." Thompson added, "I think we might have had to abandon the program, had that been a requirement."
When asked whether the Shuttle had been designed to withstand hits from micrometeoroids or orbiting space garbage, Thompson replied, "We did not know enough about the orbital environment to practically say what kind of impacts you should take from orbit. So, frankly, we did not spend a lot of time trying to design the Orbiter to take hits from unidentified objects while on orbit."
Cohen pointed out that the Shuttle was designed to have enough spare air for the crew to land before running out of oxygen if there was a half-inch hole in its cabin wall, and that the windows were designed to take very small impacts, but agreed that "I don't recall orbital debris being discussed very much."
Thompson: "I don't think you would really know enough today to put a good spec on a system flying in low Earth orbit...It's going to have to be a judgment call for someone."
He also said that the decision, after he resigned, to give up painting the foam on the External Tank -- which would probably have drastically reduced its ability to absorb either water or air which could then liquefy when the cryogenic fuels were pumped into the Tank -- had nothing to do with any weight problems:
"The number that I remember was 700 pounds of paint on the tank. As far as I know, they quit painting the tank more to save money, and it wasn't really... that they were in any kind of critical weight bind."
Owen Morris, the Shuttle's systems integration manager in the 1970s, confirmed this, saying that the decision was made that the paint was unnecessary after the tank manufacturers had decided to quit machining the foam after spraying it, which had been scraping off the hard natural "rind" on the foam. However, the complicatedly shaped areas around the "intertank" region -- and especially the bipod region from which Columbia's fatal fragment came -- are still machined, and their rind removed.
Thompson's final verdict on his successors in the program was devastating: "You have to maintain the PRACA ["Problem Report and Corrective Action"] system...because that's a discipline that makes you look at anything that's off nominal, whether it's in the [chronically] worrisome [Shuttle Orbiter] engines or in the not-so-worrisome SRBs. You have to deal with it in a formalized way through a Flight Readiness Review, or whatever technique you want to use. You have to maintain those systems.
"Then you have to maintain enough high-quality well-trained people to make good judgments with those decisions. Neither one of these accidents that we've had on the Shuttles require Ph.Ds in physics to understand. In fact, they barely exceed high-school physics to understand.
"Erosion on an O-ring when there should be no erosion is an obvious thing.
"Kinetic energies of a 2 1/2 or 3-pound hunk of foam when it's traveling 700 feet per second -- that's high school physics.
"There should not be anyone in a key management position in the Shuttle program who doesn't understand those things in considerably more depth than it would take to make a good decision on them.
"Why those things didn't happen is the kernel of your question. It appears to me that the agency needs to make sure that the procedures bring the PRACA to the right forum, and that the right people are dealing with them.... There may still be some actions that occur in the Shuttle that those systems don't catch, but that's certainly no excuse not to have those systems in place and have reasonably good people deal with them."
Finally -- while this doesn't begin to match Thompson's other bombshells -- he and his fellow former program managers had a good deal to say about their skepticism regarding NASA's continuing habits in planning for its future. George Jeffs said: "These programs cost a lot of money; and therefore, when you start them, you better darn well make sure you've figured out what you want to do with them...
"The other thing is that these programs are often paced not by money and talent, but by technology. So there's no point in taking off on a Single Stage To Orbit if you don't have an engine that can perform that kind of mission. So we go charging off and we get all together and say, 'Let's go Single Stage To Orbit' -- then say, 'But how do we get there? Oars?'
"Therefore you've got to look at the technology base as it permits you to make decisions for the next generation...It seems like it's five years for Gemini; 10 or 15 on Apollo; 15, 20, maybe 25 on Shuttle. The next one is going to be larger than that. But it's going to [need] the technology behind it that enables you to commit that kind of funding and duration of lifetime of people to do it."
Thompson added that he is skeptical about manned deep-space expeditions as NASA's next desirable goal, and that it should be thinking along Gerard O'Neill's lines instead: "There is plenty about what we're doing today and what we will do in the next 10 or 15 years that should excite a lot of capable people to work on it, even though it's not exploring Mars.
"I frankly think it will be a long time before you can convince any Congress to spend the money to embark on a properly thought-out Mars exploration mission, because it's going to be extremely costly and there's going to be a hell of an argument about whether it's worth that cost...
"So I think what is needed is a little more attention to explaining. For example, the Space Station, I think, is a very exciting program -- the thought, somewhere in the future, of direct solar conversion to electrical energy with a solar power station in orbit. The kinds of things you can do in a low earth orbit with shuttle and space station-type vehicles could be made into a very exciting program.
"Part of the problem is that people want to throw that aside and go to Mars for some reason -- and we've got to put the defense in that, because I think where the nation's going to spend its money for the next several years in manned spaceflight is low Earth orbit, and we'd better start explaining the beauty of it. I don't think you'll be going to have any trouble getting plenty of people to work on it, good people, if you'll talk about it and explain it properly."
Very few people had expected any session of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to be as dramatic as the session on the morning of April 23. It will be much harder for NASA to continue sweeping its very serious problems with its manned space program -- and its scandalous penchant for dishonesty -- under the rug after Thompson's testimony.
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