Hitman Hill lays down the law

by Chris Bergin

Lead flight director Paul Hill gave an emotional slap down to a BBC journalist who failed to heed warnings not to repeat a question on yesterday’s debris concerns – a question he had already said he was not in a position to answer.

NASA engineers are looking over photography and video of what included a piece of the External Tank’s Protuberance Air Loads (PAL) ramp coming away, as viewed by the ET cam shortly after SRB sep (Solid Rocket Booster Separation).

Hill, briefing members of the media at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), Houston – became increasingly frustrated by journalists repeating the same question on when more will be known about debris concerns.

 ET Debris Image location – see arrow (C) NASA

Pulling no punches, Hill dressed down the American correspondent representing the BBC, following his question that intimated NASA may be ‘covering up’ the seriousness of the piece of foam that came away during STS-114’s launch yesterday.

‘I’m a little bit confused – I’m not an expert by any stretch on this – (but) last night it seemed the (Debris) was a significant issue, and today, Paul, it seems like NASA is trying to play this down,’ said the journalist – who we don’t wish to name to avoid naming and shaming.

‘Now, I don’t understand why this is not seen as a big issue this morning. You said that the engineering community – that their judgement is that they haven’t reached a decision on whether or not to seek more data on this. I don’t understand why this is,’ he continued. ‘When these shuttles return to earth and you’ve done an inspection, have they had the kinda damage to the same area this has apparently occurred near the nose – or the landing gear I should say.

‘And I want to ask if you’ve made a decision to repair this damaged tile, or it way to premature to talk about repair?’

Hill, already pulling a facial expression that pre-empted his continued frustration, opened with a salvo of reiteration on why he was unable to give further detail.

‘You know I warned you that you’re going to get frustrated if you ask me for more information, not because I’m trying to be evasive, but I’ve told you every damn thing I know!!’ Said Hill.

‘Answering the last part (of the question). We are not prepared to say if it needs a repair, we’re not prepared to say it does need a repair, but what we are prepared to say is. The experts – like the smart people like Dan Bell – can look at the data and then tell us – based on flight experience, based on the level of damage we already know we’ve landed with and what we know we can land with, that’s the process.

‘Some of those folks early judgement was that the damage looked like it wasn’t going to be a significant issue, and that in no way means they are going to say that it doesn’t need to be repaired, or it does need to be repaired, or it does need additional data or doesn’t need additional data.

‘It means the judgement of the folks that do this for a living and have quantified tile damage that we’ve landed with in the past – their first look at this was that it wasn’t going to be significant. Inside the community are the folks that do this for a living and they have the final decision on if we need more data, or whether or not we need a repair.

‘I personally have been involved in the – over the past two and a half years and my guess is we’re not going to have a problem – but that’s just my personal opinion cause in the absence of not seeing any data – and I’d suggest that nobody latches on to that this is implying NASA is trying to play this down or anything!!’

Glaring down on the journalist in question, Hill – rather than leaving it there – then elaborated on his frustration with journalists over-playing an issue that occurs with nearly every launch of the Space Shuttle.

‘This is not unlike any problem you will find in space flight. This is an extremely clean vehicle, she is working like a champ, it’s almost flawless! We had a problem with the laptop computer a little while ago, which we are going to spend a lot of time talking about, not because it’s a serious issue, but it’s all we got, everything else is just working too damn well!!

‘So we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about this laptop computer. Now if we had fuel cells or we had something that looked like a short circuit in the main bus, then we would stop talking about laptop computers and we’d talk a lot about fuel cells and electrical buses.

‘Now given all that is it safe to say, there are going to be some issues with damage that are going to be small, but we have landed with them on numerous flights, over the last 21 years, and if that’s all we’ve got to talk about, it’s going to seem awfully big until we have something else to talk about that clearly is an issue – chips in RCC coating is in that category.

‘I’m not saying that is where we are today – that they aren’t important cause we’ve got a laptop computer to talk about, but when you hear a story change from one day to the next it is not necessarily because NASA is trying to play something down – it could be because we’ve talked about it long enough and we’ve seen other data by comparing it to flight history – which leads us to think this isn’t something we need to be that worried about.’

Now in full flow, Hill dropped in an element of sarcasm, as a deadly silence filled the press conference room as the execution of the BBC journalist upped a gear.

‘It doesn’t mean we are going to forget about it, it doesn’t mean we’re going to sweep it under the rug, we’re not going to start running out of the building with our hair on fire!! – because we put it down to our flight experience – that’s all I’m trying to get across to you!!’ His triad continued.

‘The engineering community has not yet come back to us and told us that they don’t want more data on this and we’ll see what they tell us. If they tell me by the end of today, tomorrow or before the crew come back home that they need more data, then by God we’re going to get the OBSS down and give them more data! And that day is going to look like they were sitting there with there hands on the tile it’s (the data) is going to look so good, but we’ll see.

‘I’m not trying to play down anything. NASA is certainly not trying to play down anything. It is understandable to me that in our own community as well as in the public and in the press that when folks see any TPS damage – even if that is clearly within our capability to land with given our extensive flight experience, that it’s going to get a lot of attention and people tend to over-react to that, because as I’ve already said once and you are all aware of this, the last flight ended in catastrophe and we lost seven friends of ours because of TPS damage. So even when we’re talking about tile damage that is clearly within capabilities that’s going to get all of our attention and all of us are going to get concerned about it.

‘We don’t make decisions on spaceflight based on that type of emotion, we make decisions on space flight based on the data and we’re looking at the data. As I’ve said now about half a dozen times now, by the end of the day or tomorrow I expect we’ll have enough data for the engineering community will tell me if they think they need more data to exonerate any damage – whether it be a tile chip or anything we find in the imagery in the next day or so in flight operations.

‘How does this compare with previous damage? I can’t tell yer. It’s not like I won’t tell you, but heck, I don’t know! As I said when I started, I have not seen the engineering data and I’ve not seen photodymetric analysis that quantifies exactly how big this is. For me to tell you how this compares to flight history – I would have to see all of that damage and somebody like Dan Bell, who will present it to me will also be the same guy who’ll say ‘Well Paul, this is how this compares to other things we’ve landed with. Here’s why I either am or am not concerned with landing with this damage.’

‘That’s where we’re at.’

Soon after, NASA manager Wayne Hale stepped in, almost to survey the remains of journalists left stunned by Hill’s brilliant dressing down of a journalist that asks one question too many on the same subject.

NASA has – as yet – not given any answers on plans to set up a Paul Hill fan club.

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