Hearings Review Columbia Accident Investigation Report, NASA Response

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Publication date: 
18 September 2003
Number: 
120

The findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) and NASA's plans to return to shuttle flight continue to be the subject of congressional hearings. On September 3, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee heard from CAIB Chairman Admiral Harold Gehman and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe on the Board's report. A week later, the House Science Committee reviewed NASA's preliminary plan to implement the Board's recommendations and a proposed target date of March 11, 2004 for the next shuttle launch. (Recent news reports indicate that NASA has decided to move the target date back to at least May of 2004.) While Members of Congress at both hearings remained supportive of O'Keefe and of the space agency, at the House Science Committee hearing, in particular, members decried the lack of national goals for space exploration and questioned the need for human space flight.

Although Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) commented that "we will have to figure out where we want the space program to go," and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) called on NASA to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on the manned space program, committee members in general seemed eager for the shuttle fleet to return to operation and for NASA to continue with its current programs. "It is imperative that America remains at the forefront of space exploration," and that "we get Americans back in space aboard an American vehicle," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS). Other senators voiced similar opinions. Asked by McCain about the effects of past NASA budget cuts on the shuttle program, Gehman said the Board had "attempted to document the fact that the shuttle upgrade program had been underfunded for decades." He declared that operating the shuttle "costs more than anyone will admit." He said one of the Board's key recommendations was to establish a technical review authority, independent from the shuttle's program management, that would have responsibility for technical requirements, specifications, and waivers, but not cost and schedule.

At the September 10 Science Committee hearing, Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) charged that NASA was setting an "exceedingly ambitious" target date for return to flight. Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) added that the agency's plans appear to be "a rush back" to "business as usual," reflecting the concerns of many committee members. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) declared his desire to see no more Americans go up on the shuttle.

Committee members raised questions about the goals and purposes of the space program, but had varying opinions about how, and by whom, those goals should be set. "Everybody's calling out for some leadership from the White House on this," said Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA); "there needs to be a vision statement by the President." Smith, who chairs the Research Subcommittee, thought the Science Committee should evaluate the future of the space program, and what might be accomplished by unmanned, robotic exploration. O'Keefe reported that an internal Administration review of the nation's goals in space is underway. Reps. Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Nick Lampson (D-TX) criticized the review for lacking congressional or public input. When pressed, O'Keefe said representatives from the White House, OSTP, OMB, and a number of agencies were involved, and would "serve up a range of options...to the President." He also noted that NASA's strategic plan spells out the next objectives for the space program: to develop revolutionary technologies to overcome current limitations to power generation, propulsion, and human endurance in space, so that the nation would be ready to undertake further goals once they are set. Gehman remarked, though, that in establishing a vision for space exploration, "NASA's vision doesn't count;" there must be a broader public consensus.

Gehman said the Board recommended that the nation first decide what it wants to do in space, then determine the next-generation vehicle needed to achieve it. The Board also recommended that crew transfer and cargo-carrying capabilities for the space station be handled by separate vehicles as soon as possible, requiring a decision on design of an Orbital Space Plane to replace the shuttle for crew transfer and rescue functions over the 15-20 year expected lifespan of the station. According to Gehman, the Board found the shuttle "not inherently unsafe," and believed that it could be operated with "acceptable risk" for a number of years if the Board's recommendations were followed, but that operating it for another 20 years was "beyond the scope of imagination."

Regarding the cost of the shuttle fleet's return to flight, O'Keefe said it would be "nothing like a major redesign effort," and the initial expense would not "amaze anybody." He said the cost would depend on the options chosen to fulfill the CAIB recommendations. O'Keefe was not sure whether the President would request additional funds in an amendment to the FY 2004 request, a supplemental request, or incorporate them into the FY 2005 budget request. Boehlert chided O'Keefe on shifting $40 million within NASA's current operating plan from the science account to support the CAIB investigation. "I hope this is not a trend," he said, warning O'Keefe to "not make a habit of dipping into science funds." "I am mindful of your point," O'Keefe replied. Questioned about the fact that Senate appropriators would provide over $200 million less for Space Flight Capabilities in the FY 2004 VA/HUD bill than the House bill recommends, O'Keefe agreed that the return to flight effort would be "more difficult if we're starting out in a hole." Questioned in both hearings about accelerating development of the Orbital Space Plane, O'Keefe said that achieving a usable vehicle before the intended 2010 date "may require more money up front."

Boehlert asked whether the launch target date continued the pattern of the shuttle program being schedule-driven. O'Keefe responded that the shuttle would return to flight when the CAIB recommendations were achieved "and not one day before," but he argued that basing the proposed schedule on an optimal systems engineering plan for space station assembly was an effective management tool. He agreed that "we've got to effectively communicate to every single person turning a wrench on this program" that the schedule must be flexible in order to ensure safety.

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