NASA's Columbia Conversations

NASA official Linda Ham, who led the Columbia space shuttle mission management team, shown against the backdrop of a photo of the launch of the doomed spacecraft. (AP/NASA/CBS)
E-mail messages among NASA staff and transcripts of key meetings reveal there were serious communication problems during the days between space shuttle Columbia's ill-fated launch and its doomed descent, a newspaper reports.

The problems may be part of the NASA culture that the independent board probing the Feb. 1 shuttle disaster, in which seven astronauts died, critiques when it releases its final report later this month.

In addition to explaining the accident, which the panel is expected to blame on pieces of foam insulation that fell off the external fuel tank during liftoff, striking the shuttle's wing, the report is also expected to focus on NASA management problems.

According to The New York Times, NASA's mission manager did not know of three requests by scientists to see spy satellite images of the space shuttle as it orbited earth. The pictures might have been used to determine how much damage the foam strike had caused.

NASA withdrew one such request for the photos. Separately, a NASA official rejected an offer of help from an Air Force surveillance agency that collects those images.

At one crucial meeting of NASA managers on Jan. 22, ten days before the shuttle was lost, mission management team head Linda Ham who had requested the images. She says no one said they had. One of the people working there, chief structural engineer Alan Rocha, apparently did not mention he wanted the images. He later told reporters he regretted not speaking up.

In an emotional press conference two weeks ago, Ham said she did not seek spy satellite pictures of the orbiting spaceship because even though engineers wanted pictures, none of them approached her about it during the 16-day flight and she could not ascertain who was making the request.

She talked to a Kennedy Space Center official who was aware of a possible request for spy satellite imagery and told him: "I really can't find the source, so I don't think we need to pursue this."

"It ended that day," Ham said in the recent press conference. "It never came up again. Never. Not in a hallway, not in the mission management team."

The communications problems also plagued discussions about a report on the risks that a foam strike might cause.

Ham has said she had to rely on an outside contractor, Boeing, for an analysis of the foam hit on the shuttle's wing, which predicted there'd be little damage. Ham said the outside study was necessary because "We don't have the tools to do that. We don't have the knowledge to do that or the background or expertise to do that kind of thing."

But one shuttle program worker told the Times: "Part of the problem is that everybody assumed that someone else would do it, and the old axiom of business is no one ever wanted to be first."

According to The Times, transcripts of the Jan. 22 meeting show that the conclusion of the Boeing report was readily accepted. Little attention was paid to risks or uncertainty, and Ham cut off discussion on those topics.

"Really, I don't think there is much we can do," Ham told her colleagues. "It's not really a factor during the flight because there isn't much we can do about it."

Referring to a foam strike two flights earlier, during Atlantis' launch in October, Ham said at the management team meeting, "I'm not sure if the area is exactly the same where the foam came from that, but the material properties and density of the foam wouldn't do any damage."

The foam impact was considered so trivial by managers, in fact, that Columbia's astronauts were not informed about it until a week into their flight. Mission Control sent up a 16-second video clip of the foam strike "just so they are armed if they get any questions in the press conferences," Engelauf told the mission management team on Jan. 24.

Unknown to the mission management team at the time, it was the largest piece of foam insulation to ever strike a shuttle. The estimated impact speed was more than 500 mph.

The chairman of the investigation board, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., said in May that NASA could have launched Atlantis to rescue the Columbia astronauts if the space agency had known early in the flight about the severity of the wing damage. And just this month, he said NASA management failure will share equal blame with the foam strike in the panel's final report, to be released at the end of August.

Both Ham and Phil Engelauf, the mission operations representative on the management team, said they would have tried everything to save the astronauts, if they had known the damage to the wing was catastrophic.

"We were all trying to do the right thing. All along, we were basing our decisions on the best information that we had at the time," said Ham. "Nobody wanted to do any harm to anyone. Obviously, nobody wants to hurt the crew. These people are our friends. They're our neighbors. We run with them, work out in the gym with them. My husband is an astronaut. I don't believe anyone is at fault for this."