- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2003

NASA received support for its mission yesterday, but members of Congress questioned whether budget cuts, a brain drain and unwavering devotion to manned spaceflight contributed to the demise of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew.
"We had no indications that would suggest a compromise to flight safety" during Columbia's mission, said Sean O'Keefe, who was picked by President Bush to run the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Mr. O'Keefe was the sole witness during the first congressional hearing on the Feb. 1 disaster. He testified for four hours during the joint hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee.
While Mr. O'Keefe declined to speculate on the cause of the explosion, he said in response to questions from lawmakers that there was no evidence that Columbia's age or the protective tiles shielding it from heat were factors.
Some of the shuttle's 4,000 sensors should have noticed a problem with the tiles, he said. He defended Columbia's use despite its age the oldest shuttle, it made its inaugural flight in 1981 because of the space agency's aggressive maintenance program.
Lawmakers speculated that budget cuts had made it difficult to run the program safely. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said that since fiscal 1994 the amount of money Congress has provided the shuttle program has been atotal of $1.366 billionshort of the amount NASA has requested. NASA officials said after the hearing that the figure was $1 billion.
"The question is, does that compromise safety?" asked Mr. Nelson, who underwent training and flew in 1986 as a crew member on the 24th flight of the shuttle.
Mr. O'Keefe countered that the space agency has improved the efficiency of the shuttle program since fiscal 1993, despite lower funding, and reduced in-flight anomalies 61 percent from 14.3 to 5.5 per flight.
"I want to encourage you to aggressively ask for what you need to keep the astronauts safe," said Rep. David Wu, Oregon Democrat.
House and Senate appropriators agreed this week to increase NASA's budget by $414 million above the $15.5 billion the president requested in his fiscal 2004 budget.
A handful of lawmakers said the Columbia disaster is not an opportunity to throw money at the agency, but a chance to review its mission. That includes asking whether NASA should embrace unmanned spaceflight to reduce the risk to astronauts.
"The space program is at a critical juncture and we must decide how to continue," said Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican.
Mr. O'Keefe said the decision shouldn't be whether to support manned or unmanned flights, but how robotics can aid the space program. He said the Hubble Space Telescope provides a good example of the need for both technology and human flight. The telescope was launched in 1990 but was considered expensive space junk until a shuttle crew fixed its damaged lens in 1993, when it began to capture new images of space. The repair couldn't have been done mechanically, Mr. O'Keefe said.
The space agency plans to resume shuttle flights once the investigation into the Columbia disaster concludes and problems are fixed.
"In exploration, after accidents like this, we can learn from them and further reduce risk, although we must honestly admit that risks can never be eliminated," Mr. O'Keefe said.
He said efforts to develop an escape mechanism for crews during an emergency have not worked.
"Escape systems add weight and are technically infeasible," he said.
Lawmakers continued to express concern over the independence of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, appointed by NASA hours after the disaster.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee, said the board's charter must be revised to ensure independence.
"The charter's words need to match everyone's intent now to avoid any problems later," Mr. Boehlert said. "It's essential that we maintain the independent nature of the board."
Lawmakers said a committee appointed by the president would increase confidence in the process and the conclusions.
Meanwhile, recovery crews in Texas found "significant amounts" of human remains believed to be Columbia's astronauts yesterday, and the first truck transporting shuttle fragments to Kennedy Space Center in Florida left Barksdale Air Force Base, near Shreveport, La.

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