Senate Committee Takes Another Look at NASA Programs

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Publication date: 
7 November 2003

Testifying at an October 29 hearing of the Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, Robert Park of the American Physical Society touched on perhaps the single most defining characteristic of the International Space Station program: the long-running controversy over the station's merit. Said Park, "Ten years ago in this very room I appeared before this committee to testify on the redesigned space station. If I repeated that testimony today, it would still fit. . . . a permanently-manned space station in Earth orbit cannot be justified on the basis of science alone."

Much has changed in the last ten years. The orbiting station is now larger than a jumbo jet, having been assembled in 50 space walks. Many tons of station hardware are now poised at the Kennedy Space Center for transport. Yet during this time the station crew size has been dramatically reduced, as have the projections about the scope and relative importance of the station's research program. The controversy continues.

October 29 was a busy day on Capitol Hill for NASA. There was a morning hearing in the House Science Committee on NASA reorganization, and both a morning and afternoon hearing in the Senate. The Senate hearings were before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and one of its subcommittees.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe testified at the morning Senate hearing on the future of NASA and space exploration. Committee chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and his Republican and Democratic colleagues spoke of the need for a national vision for NASA, presidential leadership, and their doubts about the ability of NASA's culture and procedures to respond to safety reforms. O'Keefe responded by talking about the agency's strategic plan and overall mission objectives, and discussed three major limitations (power generation/propulsion, human survival, and assured communications) that must be overcome to explore beyond low earth orbit. Also testifying was Admiral Harold Gehman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board who told senators that NASA's institutional problems were as responsible for the accident as was the detached foam insulation. He decried the lack of a replacement for the shuttle. A partial replacement, the proposed $15+ billion Orbital Space Plane that would be used for crew transportation, is highly controversial. McCain declared that House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert's (R-NY) and Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall's (D-TX) criticisms of the plane's program were "well taken, well noted." Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) was quite critical of the NASA Administrator in the context of recent concerns about station crew safety, saying O'Keefe was "long on vision, but short on safety." O'Keefe spoke of extensive discussions that were held before the last flight of the station crew, saying "In the end, the risk judgement was made," and that the comfort level with this decision was high. Speaking later of the return to the use of the shuttle, O'Keefe declared, "the calendar is not going to drive this." Also discussed was a manned mission to Mars, with other witnesses calling for this to be a clearly defined national goal.

Where the morning hearing was restrained by time, and so had to move quickly, the afternoon hearing was more expansive. It readily illustrated the long-running controversy about the merits of the space station. William Readdy, NASA Associate Director for Space Flight, described the station as "that gateway to exploration beyond low Earth orbit." Subcommittee chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS), while clearly not an opponent of the agency or its programs, spoke of "immediate concerns" about the safety of the station's crew, and "whether or not the mission and scientific research done aboard the station is enough to sustain a national vision for space exploration." Brownback also has doubts about the orbital space plane program, saying that NASA has spent $5 billion on five previous replacement programs for the shuttle, with "not much to show for it." In addition to Park and Readdy, Allen Li of the U.S. General Accounting Office testified at this afternoon hearing. Li's testimony was short and to the point: station "assembly is at a standstill," "research is limited," transportation of science materials is limited, station costs will be higher, and "partner funding is uncertain." He described the safety changes needed in NASA's culture as "monumental." Other witnesses offering differing views on the value of research to be performed on the station, ranging from loss of astronaut bone and muscle mass to the psychological dimensions of crew members living together for a long period to the value of protein crystallization. It is unlikely that many minds were changed, although this hearing did seem to raise new concerns about the space station program.

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