'02 launch was seen as risk to Fla.

NASA safety officials made an attempt to block shuttle Endeavour from taking off

March 26, 2006|By MICHAEL CABBAGE | MICHAEL CABBAGE,ORLANDO SENTINEL

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Everything appeared normal June 5, 2002, as the shuttle Endeavour thundered into orbit from Kennedy Space Center through hazy afternoon skies.

Unknown to the public, however, the Air Force's top two safety officials at Cape Canaveral had tried to stop the countdown. Air Force technicians could not verify that a critical backup system used to destroy errant rockets was working properly.

In an apparently unprecedented move, the safety officers were overruled after a phone conversation between Brig. Gen. Donald Pettit, commander of the Air Force's 45th Space Wing, and Kennedy Space Center Director Roy Bridges.

Endeavour launched minutes later in violation of flight rules designed to protect the public.

Those and other findings are detailed in a 2005 internal briefing on the incident written by investigators with NASA's Office of the Inspector General. The draft concluded that the "entire Florida Central Coast [was] placed at UNKNOWN but INCREASED risk."

Despite those findings, NASA Inspector General Robert "Moose" Cobb derailed the inquiry and declared the issue an Air Force matter last year, according to investigators familiar with the case. Sources in Cobb's office said they were forbidden from interviewing Bridges and Pettit or from requesting crucial information from the Air Force.

"It was obvious to me that he didn't want to make the agency look bad," said a former investigator in the office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He wouldn't do his job."

Cobb, a White House appointee, is under investigation by an administration integrity committee after being accused of repeatedly quashing cases and retaliating against those who resisted.

The Orlando Sentinel interviewed five current and former investigators in NASA's inspector general's office, as well as a safety official at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. All requested anonymity because of concerns they would face retribution for speaking publicly.

Cobb referred an e-mail request for an interview last week to Madeline Chulumovich, his executive officer.

"Our audit office is working on a report on how this safety matter has been resolved," Chulumovich said.

`No go'

All launches from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral are supported by the Air Force's Eastern Range, managed in the Range Operations Control Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. One of the main reasons the range exists is to ensure public safety.

All rockets launched from Cape Canaveral are equipped with explosive devices to be detonated by remote control if they veer off course. The so-called command-destruct system has a backup communication link in case the primary link fails. Launch rules require that both links be working properly before a mission lifts off.

On June 5, 2002, Endeavour was poised to begin a 14-day flight. As countdown clocks ticked toward a 5:23 p.m. liftoff, the backup command-destruct link went down about 2:30 p.m. The system faded in and out before being reported back online about 3 p.m. However, the link went down again less than an hour later.

According to the document drafted by investigators, Pettit and Bridges discussed the problem in a "totally nonstandard procedure" that occurred off the regular communications network used by range personnel.

The investigators concluded that it would be "unacceptable" for the space center director and the range commander to privately develop a rationale for waiving a safety requirement. There was a "distinct probability" that occurred, investigators determined, although there was no proof.

"Because we weren't allowed to interview the two key people, Bridges and Pettit, we don't know exactly what was said," a former NASA investigator said.

Bridges, who retired from NASA last year, said Friday that he did not remember the incident but that he typically spoke to range officials only to get updates on problems.

"That [waiving the requirement] is something that I would not have pushed him [Pettit] to do, one way or another," Bridges said.

Attempts by e-mail and telephone to contact Pettit, who retired from the Air Force in 2002, were unsuccessful.

Two Air Force range officials -- the mission flight-control officer and the chief of safety -- are responsible for determining whether the command-destruct system is working and the public is protected. During the final poll before liftoff, both responded "no go" because of the system's problems.

Pettit overruled them, however, "with little if any discussion," according to the briefing document drafted by investigators. Shuttle managers launched Endeavour without ever knowing of the safety officers' actions.

No investigation

Wally Toolan, a former range safety officer at Cape Canaveral, wrote to the Air Force Inspector General's Office on June 30, 2002, accusing Pettit of violating launch rules.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.