Science Committee Begins Shuttle Accident Hearings

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Publication date: 
11 September 2003

The House Science Committee has started a series of hearings on the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. Committee members held their first oversight hearing last week, calling in the chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, Admiral Harold Gehman, to discuss the board's findings and recommendations. Straight-talking committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) did not mince words in his opening remarks, describing NASA's "organizational and cultural deficiencies," and stating, "The sad fact is that the loss of the Columbia and her crew was preventable. This is not even close to being a case in which the problems could only be seen in hindsight." There were no arguments from the other side of the aisle in Boehlert's assessment of the Board's work, with committee members joining the chairman in giving Gehman standing applause at the end of the hearing.

Boehlert sees his committee's role as more than just reviewing the cause of the accident. As he stated, "we need to make fundamental decisions about the future of the Shuttle program and of the manned space flight program." Boehlert added, "we need to better define NASA's overarching human space flight vision - something that has been lacking for more than a generation. That won't be easy, and it can only be done after hearings that will enable us to make a clear- eyed appraisal of the costs, benefits and risks of different options."

Other committee members were equally critical. Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) decried the lack of a crew escape vehicle, while Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said NASA may have been on the wrong track with the shuttle, as it has cost too many lives and too much money.

Gehman was unambiguous about the cause of the accident. "The foam did it," he told the committee. The Board wanted to determine, he said, "was this a legitimate surprise?" "We were not very pleased with what we found," Gehman testified.

There were several prominent themes in this hearing. One was outlined by Rohrabacher in his questioning when he asked, "Shouldn't we minimize the use of the shuttle?" Yes, replied Gehman, it should be replaced as quickly as possible. Saying that NASA's present shuttle management scheme is inadequate, Gehman said that NASA can operate the shuttle for another ten years if the agency is very careful, ensuring that tiny signals of possible problems do not continue to be ignored. Boehlert noted that the agency has granted 3,200 waivers for shuttle performance, 1,000 of which had not been reviewed in the last ten years. The Board found that many NASA workers feel "enormous schedule pressure," Gehman said, while NASA managers reported that they did not. Gehman told the committee that schedule pressure did not cause the accident..

Another hearing theme was the need for an independent safety review panel. Advocated by both Republican and Democratic members, Gehman urged that this panel be similar to those used in some missile development programs. The new panel should not be independent of NASA, but should be separate from the shuttle program and from budget and schedule pressure. Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) predicted that such a panel would challenge the basic culture of NASA.

Also discussed at several points during the hearing was the need for a vision for the space agency. Gehman made an important point when he said that it is not just NASA that needs a vision of what the future space program should be, but the nation as a whole. Boehlert added that NASA may have to adjust its vision, since no agency gets all the money that it wants, and that Congress needs to agree to this vision.

Another prominent theme was the usefulness of manned space flight. In response to several questions from Rep Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), Gehman described the configuration of the shuttle and its operations such as re-entry as "extraordinarily dangerous" to the crew, but said that the Accident Board "really didn't do much of a study" on human space flight. Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) made clear his preference for unmanned space exploration, calling for an analysis of the costs and benefits of sending humans into space.

Toward the end of the hearing, when discussing NASA and its vision, Gehman said, "I have confidence in NASA, it's a great organization." Another witnesses, MIT Professor Sheila Widnall, also a member of the Accident Board, concurred, adding "NASA needs a tough partner . . . [to] get a common agreement about what the vision is." Addressing the committee members, she said, "It would be you guys."