- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Investigators scrutinized NASA’s past for nearly seven months while examining the Space Shuttle Columbia’s fiery breakup.

Now Congress will debate its future.

In the first hearing since the Columbia Accident Investigation Board released its exhaustive report Aug. 26 on the shuttle explosion, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. and NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe will appear today before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Adm. Gehman will appear by himself tomorrow before the House Science Committee, which plans to hold a series of hearings.

This week’s House and Senate hearings will focus on the investigation board’s 248-page review of the shuttle explosion, but lawmakers are likely to delve into the space agency’s funding, the future of manned space flight and NASA’s future.

“Now is the time to set some glorious goals for NASA’s future,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee’s space and aeronautics subcommittee.

After the accident investigation board released its report last week, Adm. Gehman challenged Congress to engage in a public policy debate about NASA’s future.

“Without prescribing what the next [shuttle] program should look like or what the next vehicle should look like, we suggest that what really needs to happen is that we need to decide as a nation what…we want to do,” said the admiral, who chaired the 13-member independent panel.

What NASA should do is chart a destination other than the International Space Station, said Rep. Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican.

“The space station in and of itself is not a worthy goal for a space program,” said Mr. Barton, who in May proposed no longer using the space shuttles in the manned space flight program unless NASA could make them safer.

Seven astronauts died when Columbia disintegrated during re-retry on Feb. 1.

“If you want to go to Mars or explore some other planets or put up a new space station that’s permanent, those are big goals. I want a manned space program, but if the best we can do is the space station, then I don’t want a manned space program,” Mr. Barton said.

If Congress and NASA want to continue the manned space flight program, lawmakers will have to bolster the agency’s $15.3 billion budget, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee, said last week.

“There’s no question the direction in which we have to go if we wish to continue human space flight: We have to increase the resources,” he said.

But he stressed that Congress won’t invest more in NASA until it knows more about NASA’s long-term plans and has a realistic estimate of the costs to carry out those plans.

“If they’re expecting us to write a blank check, we’re unwilling to do so. If they’re expecting us to go forward at any risk, we’re unwilling to do that, too,” Mr. Boehlert said.

Today’s Senate hearing could include a discussion of personal responsibility.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and Senate Commerce Committee chairman, said in a previous hearing he was infuriated that NASA had held no one responsible for the failure to take satellite photos of Columbia during its 16-day mission. NASA engineers argued the photos would have helped determine the extent of damage to the shuttle during liftoff, when a 1.67-pound piece of foam insulation from the external fuel tank hit its left wing.

Since Mr. McCain made his statement, the investigation board has made it clear that Linda Ham rejected three requests for photos of the shuttle when she determined there were no official requests for the images and, therefore, no requirement to have them taken.

Mrs. Ham, chairman of the mission management team during Columbia’s mission, told colleagues on the seventh day of Columbia’s mission that she was concerned that time spent maneuvering Columbia to make its left wing visible to satellites could delay the mission and delay the next shuttle launch.

The accident investigation board, which spent about $19.8 million from NASA’s budget on its investigation, also said NASA missed numerous opportunities to get information about damage to Columbia.

The House Science Committee may call some NASA employees to testify during the six to eight hearings it plans to have to talk about the decisions they made. The committee doesn’t want to publicly flog employees, said Bob Palmer, minority staff director of the House Science Committee, but having them testify may help determine whether they would make better decisions if the investigation board’s recommendations are put in place.

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