STS-107 News

Accident Response Briefing
James Hartsfield, NASA Public Affairs Representative
Leroy Cain, Flight Director

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HARTSFIELD: Good afternoon and welcome to today's briefing.

We've had a lot of interview requests to talk to Entry Flight Director Leroy Cain about his activities on February 1 during Columbia's entry. So we thought this briefing would be a good idea as a way to handle those interview requests and still allow Leroy time to work on the investigation and the accident investigation that's taking place.

So without any other remarks, Entry Flight Director Leroy Cain.

CAIN: Thank you, James.

As most of you know and as you have seen--if you've seen the video, and I know most of you probably have by now--this was a tragic day for all of us on the Flight Control Team. It was, as you know, if you've been around here for the last 10 or 12, 13 days, it was a very said day for the entire NASA and contractor family.

Part of the message that I want to give you today, and the main message I want to give you is that I was very proud of the way the team performed on Saturday in the face of the tragic events. I remain proud of them in these days in the aftermath, in the work that they're doing and the commitment that they show. They're a very professional group of individuals. They remain very dignified and showed a lot of integrity in the face of adversity. And I'm very proud of them for that.

Our hearts and our thoughts and prayers go out to the crew and to their families. And that will continue to be with us for a very long time.

I would tell you that, and I think most of you know who have been around here, that this team and the NASA team has great resolve. We will get through this, and we will do it with the help of each other and with the help of the community, with our families and with the rest of the agency. And I think the public has shown us just a tremendous amount of support everywhere we look and in everything we've done since Saturday.

What have we been doing since then? Our team, like many of the teams across the program, have been involved, we've been very integral and involved in the recovery and investigation efforts, and we will continue to be involved for as long as it takes. We very much look forward to better days in the future where we will fly again and move forward.

I think that's the extent of the remarks I wanted to make at the opening. And we can take questions.

HARTSFIELD: OK. So we'll start with some questions here in Houston, and then go around to other NASA centers. OK? And please state your name and affiliation.

QUESTION: Mr. Cain, realizing how difficult it must be for you to re-live those moments, could you please take us through your thoughts? When did you realize that you were dealing with something extremely serious and to the point where you realized you had a catastrophe on your hands?

CAIN: From the very first indications that we had of the hydraulic return temperature indications being failed, that gave me pause.


As of yet, we haven't eliminated any legs on that fault tree. And so is it a possibility? I would have to say, yes, it's a possibility along with the whole range of things that are possibilities because we haven't begun to check things off on those legs. But that is the management tool that we will use to step through this in a systematic way. But there are many, many other possibilities.

QUESTION: If indeed there was a hole in the orbiter and it was noticed during the mission itself, could a change in the re-entry angle of the orbiter have saved the shuttle?

CAIN: We do not think so, because the trajectory that we designed and the trajectory that we flew is one that by definition from a thermal heat-load, heat-rate standpoint is optimized. So we do not think that for knowledge of a given hole or breach or something of that nature, everything that we know today says that we we're doing the best we can with the trajectory that we flew.

QUESTION: There was one point on the tape where it appeared that your shoulder sagged and one of the women behind you--I think it was Ellen Ochoa was also there--was it Phil Engelauf who told you something? You were speaking to him and then you turned around and that was when you said, "Lock the doors." Remember what happened at that moment?

CAIN: I do. In fact, that was the point in time where we had received some unconfirmed information relative to some sightings. And when I put that information with the known events that we already had, it gave me great pause.

QUESTION: I'd like to follow on that question and your response. What was going through your mind at that time as sort of the leader of the operational room? What were you hoping and expecting from the other flight controllers and the other people supporting you? And how difficult was it to sort of hold everyone together? I guess I just was looking at your sort of frame of mind that you'd receive this information. The rest of the team probably didn't have what you had but was wondering the same thing you might have been wondering just intuitively. What were you trying to do to hold everyone together to do each step that you need--knew needed to be done at that point?

CAIN: Well, I think the best way I can answer your question is to say that we still didn't know what we had. And we relied on our training. And it was automatic, really and truly, it was an automatic thing that triggered us into action and kept us moving forward on a path that we did know and understand. We did know and understand the things that we should expect, where the vehicle should be, when it should be there, when should we get tracking, when should we get UHF, at what point can we begin to put the trackers in the S-Band systems in a search mode. We stuck with the things we knew and understood.

We didn't allow ourselves to get head down and tunneled into something that was of concern, unverified and would have potentially led us astray had the circumstances been different where it could've made a difference. So the instinct that we had to keep moving forward and keep communicating and to keep--stay in our checklist was one that we rely on and that I think this situation showed that was very valuable.

QUESTION: Can you give us a little bit more background about yourself, how long you've been with NASA and how many flights you have controlled in the past? And also looking forward, what your next, obviously after the investigation, what your next assignment would be as far as flights go?

CAIN: Well, I've been here in this business since I graduated from college in 1988. And I've been working for NASA since 1991. I was selected to be a flight control director in 1998. I have somewhere on the order of a dozen missions as a flight director between NASA and entry and on orbit phases.

As far as the schedule in front of us, of course, there's some things that we'll re-look at depending on how things lay out. But the schedule as it was when we launched STS-107, I was and am scheduled to work the next mission, STS-114 and, as well 116 and 117 in the same capacity. And then, I am the lead flight director on STS-118. And there's some manning subsequent to that, but it's probably not germane given the schedule changes that we'll be looking at.

QUESTION: Got a technical question for you here. And I'm not a pilot, so I'm sorry if I'm off base here. But it says on the time line that one of the last elements was the left elevon going up about eight degrees. Does that make sense if the orbiter's rolling or yawing left because of increased drag?

CAIN: It does. In fact, part of what we're doing and what you're seeing is trying to after this initial surge of data collection and assimilation is, we're trying to find correlation between the different subsystems. If you begin to see something happening on the wing in one subsystem, then you want to look at the other subsystems, like flight control. And in fact, the elevon and aileron and flight control activity is consistent with the other parameters that we were seeing in the other subsystems up until now.

QUESTION: We see you on the video rub your forehead and your eyes and we see a lot motion, but we can't hear it, what's not on the flight loop. And I was wondering if maybe you can give us a sense of what was in the back of your head while you were trying to stay focused and keep the game face on without revealing anything that you don't want to reveal? And how hard it was to come to the conclusion to lock the doors and to sort of reach the steps in the process you needed to reach?

CAIN: Actually what I was doing right at that moment in time is, I was saying a prayer. And then, after I did that I knew it was time to go and take the next step. And my prayer was for the crew and for their families. And because you have to remember, even at that point we didn't know the details of the breakup, we didn't know the details of the situation as it was. All we knew was that we had a significant event that was probably catastrophic. But in my mind, I still didn't know, perhaps, part of the crew module could have remained intact for some period of time.

And so, I began to think about things like ground forces and getting people mobilized and looking for chutes and things of that nature. So my answer to your question is that we went the next step. And it was difficult to accept, but it wasn't difficult to execute, again I would say because of our training.

QUESTION: How and when did you officially find out what happened that morning?

CAIN: We found out from the folks in the area. We had verifiable information from folks in the area that could verify the vehicle breakup. And in addition to that, we had video that one of the local stations of Dallas had picked up. I believe it was WSAA and CNN had picked that up. So we had two or three verifiable sources that the vehicle had essentially come apart. And that's when we set in motion the contingency plans.

QUESTION: There was a shot in the tape that I saw this morning and I think it was (inaudible) and it looked like a red folder. And I don't know if that has any significance or not. Is there a significance to the red folder? Or is that part of the contingency plan? Or was that just--no?

CAIN: What I think you saw, Nancy, was the flight control operations handbook is a big, thick book. And most of the ones that we have are in these red binders. And if I'm not mistaken, I believe the FCOH, the Flight Control Ops Handbook is in one of those red binders. If you saw something other than that, I don't know what it would be.

QUESTION: Looking at the transcripts, looking at all of the timelines, it seems obvious that you guys did everything you could and, unfortunately, it was fated to be a bad day.

Having said that, I'm wondering, at 13:52:17 GMT, there was a left main gear temperature which was rising almost two minutes before the elevon problems that MMACS reported to you. And I was curious why that wasn't reported to you.

And on, I suppose, on a little bit happier note, obviously you worked a lot with Rick Husband, since he was the commander. Can you tell us any anecdotes about him, any things that you guys shared?

CAIN: OK. With respect to the temperatures, what you're seeing and what some of you, if you haven't seen, you probably will, as we went back and pulled all of the telemetered data, everything that's in the telemetry stream that we had captured, there are some parameters that we, in fact, don't monitor in real time.

There are some parameters that, although we monitor them in real time, we did not see a trend, and you would hot see a trend until some number of minutes, some single-digit, probably, number of minutes, a few at least.

So when we've gone back now to reconstruct that timeline, for example, the first indications of a change in the rate of a temperature rise, well, the only reason we know that's significant now is because we marched ahead in time and we've shown that it was a rate and that it was a rate that was sustained.

In real time, it's very difficult to do that unless you have something that's very steep and sustained, which we didn't have. That's not really characteristic of the kinds of temperature increases that we're talking about.

So the answer is two-part. One is, we don't look at all of those sensors in a real-time fashion. And the other one is that, for some of them that we do look at, it takes some time to see a rate and to recognize that that might be significant. So that's why we didn't see in real time all of the things that you see on this timeline that's being constructed.

As to your question on Rick, the thing that I would share with you is that he was--there probably wasn't a more perfect fit in the crew office for putting together and leading this particular crew.

This was a marvelous group of individuals, very high-powered in terms of their capabilities. They were also very diverse and came from very diverse backgrounds. And Rick, with his kind of laid-back, very easy-going style, I think that lent itself very well to them being able to meld as a crew, which they did. This crew had a little bit more time in training, as you recall, because of some of the delays. And they really and truly, by the time they went and flew, they were a family in and of themselves. And it was just pure joy being around them and working with them.

QUESTION: You were kind enough to answer some questions the other day. And some of those included what you knew before this day began. I'm just wondering if the mood going into this landing day was any different from any other? Did you feel like there was anything unusual you needed to look out for on this day?

CAIN: No, I didn't feel that way. And my mood was--it was very normal. And it was as it has been in other (inaudible) written entries that I've worked. I was trying to explain this the other day, and I was using words like the normalcy of it was the way I was describing it.

And when we came in, in the morning, it was as things should be on entry day. And we weren't working any significant problems. We were able to get in the checklist. The crew was ahead of the time line in the checklist. Everything was setting up to be just as I would want it to be with respect to being able to do over it and land that day. We worked a few issues with the weather. And that's, as you know, very typical.

So I would describe it as being a very normal, right down the middle. I had no concerns whatsoever coming into this day.

QUESTION: Forgive me for going back to more investigatory questions. But in terms of yesterday's analysis, the analysis that both you and the accident investigation board talked about yesterday, they talked about the heat transfer, it couldn't be from a missing tile or a lost tile issue. What about in terms of the breach you see, could that be from multiple tiles? Is there sort of a bound of how many X number of tiles could give you such of a breach where that might be, in terms of a low threshold?

CAIN: Well, I don't believe that we've zeroed in on--by any means, on the fact that we have--that we suffered a breach. I think there's many legs of the fault tree that we still need to consider. And that's how I would answer your question is, I don't think we're settled on that at all.

QUESTION: Leroy, Ron Dittemore said during--and this is just a follow-up on something you said earlier today. Ron Dittemore said last week that maybe if you knew that there was a really serious problem, if you had telemetry or photographic evidence or whatever that you could get the crew to a bail out. I just wanted to know if--you said that there is no way to shape a trajectory to minimize heating, because you're already at the minimum, and I understand that. If you don't get to a runway, and I understand you can't get to a runway, but if you--could you design a re-entry profile that doesn't go to a runway, that just is designed to get the thing to a bail-out altitude? Is that even theoretically possible?

CAIN: Well, it's theoretically possible. The thing that that doesn't do for you necessarily, is it doesn't change your heat load the way that you would be desiring to do if you were postulating some kind of situation where you had some place on the orbiter that you were trying to minimize the impact for. So there's lots of different things you can do, Bill, but when we look at those things, they don't necessarily solve the problem for us and they just lead to potentially other problems.

QUESTION: I am asking this question that I really hate asking, but at one point I saw in the video today that you had tears rolling down your cheeks. At what point did that happen?

CAIN: That happened right after I took a moment to myself and I had pretty much realized that the vehicle came apart and that we needed to take actions consistent with that. If I remember right, that's when that happened.

QUESTION: I said in my previous question that it's at least very evident to me that there's absolutely nothing your flight control could have done that day. When did that become evident to you? Or is there still any lingering doubt that if you had done anything any differently that the outcome could have been different? And was there relief or a sigh that thank heavens its not my team that messed up when that relay station came, or--lead me through that?

CAIN: I never had any doubt and I still don't doubt what we did or didn't do. You are correct in that the kind of problem that we've suffered on this day--there isn't anything in my estimation that the flight control team could have done differently or should have done differently.

And with respect to your question about was I relieved, no, I was not relieved because I don't--I personally don't think it's about one team or the other team. I think it's about us. And I think it's about us looking at what happened here and trying to find out as an agency and as a program and all the way down to the various groups and elements, we're all in this together. And so, no, I wasn't at all relieved.

QUESTION: It's good of you to answer these difficult questions. You may have touched on this. Could you clarify that at what point during the entry did you think about the debris hit on the left wing and think that maybe something was going on with that? And did you ever think before--say before 8 a.m. that you had a possibility of losing the vehicle?

CAIN: The first time I thought about that was the very first call from the mechanical assistance officer from MMACS when Jeff Kling called and said "Flight, MMACS, I've lost four hydraulic return line temperature indications."


QUESTION: Well, I wondered if you could sort of characterize what he told you? And then I had the side question about how many people were working for you in the control room that day?

CAIN: Right, OK,


QUESTION: And if there are, did that--what did you all get any kind of indications like that?

CAIN: We don't have any sensors of that nature. Of course we have multiple temperature and pressure sensors and performance kind of sensors on all--on the equipment that we do have in the wing. Of course the wing is not that highly instrumented in and of itself. The wheel well area is because of all of the equipment in it. And then at the back of the wing where the elevons and the actuators are, there's some instrumentation and of course some measurements. But it is not--does not have the kind of sensors that would tell you if you had some kind of hole to vacuum.

QUESTION: Just a fact question. How many entries have you supervised? And how many ascents?

CAIN: Well, you're going to make me count it, aren't you? Because I don't know off the top of my head. We'll get you that number. It's around 10 or 12 total between entries and ascents.


QUESTION: Leroy, I had heard that you guys did pull a little data out of the stuff that came after the unofficial loss of signal or whatever. I had even heard that you showed zero hydraulic pressure on the left side (inaudible) I realize that. I'm not asking you to tell em anything you can't tell me. But have you ever seen any data that shows zero pressure on the left side?

CAIN: I haven't seen it personally. I do know that we have had some success in the past two days, specifically with being able to glean some new data from a few of those seconds at the end of that 32 seconds. I don't know the details of which parameters. If I try to tell you that, I'll probably remember it wrong. But we could certainly, you know, provide that information to you as we determine that it's good and valid data.

One of the things that we're going to be very careful about with that data is to make sure that we understand in which subsystems we have good and valid data in that timeframe and which ones we don't and so that we can be very clear as we begin to put the story together. It's very possible that some of those frames will have good data for some of the subsystems and not the others.

CAIN: And it has to do with the way the data is packaged and the parent words and things of that nature. So we're going to be very careful with that.

On the hydraulic pressure specifically, I have not seen that myself.

QUESTION: I'm sorry, my ignorance of the entry flight director loops and so on. Is there just one loop? It seems we heard one loop. Or is there other chatter going on that maybe we haven't heard?

CAIN: There are--there's only one flight director loop. And it is the decisional loop, if you want to think of it that way. That is really where the command and control takes place, and of course, air to ground is how we relay that to the crew. There are many other voice loops that we use to talk to various other entities, both in and outside of the control center that are part of the operation.

HARTSFIELD: OK, and I think that's all the questions from KSC. No further questions here at JSC, so we'll conclude the briefing. Thank you very much, Leroy.

And thank you all.

CAIN: Thank you.