- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) — NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told lawmakers Wednesday the safety of the Columbia astronauts, who died Feb. 1 when the shuttle broke up in flight, had not been compromised.

"It's important for the committee to know safety has not been compromised," O'Keefe testified at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

Panel members, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-chaired the hearing, and Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., asked whether budget cuts affected the safety of the shuttle mission.

"Starving" of the space program budget did not increase risks to the Columbia crew, O'Keefe said. In fact, he added, although cuts were made, efficiency of the program had increased and risks to missions had decreased.

Although considerations for future safety measurements were being considered, at the time of the Columbia flight, NASA saw no reason to be overly concerned about the safety of the crew, O'Keefe commented.

Committee members, including Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., cited a 1994 study, done by engineers at Stanford University in California and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, that found 15 percent of shuttle tiles account for 85 percent of its risks.

In response to concern that no measures had been taken to protect against tile damage, O'Keefe reiterated the tile damage is not necessarily responsible for the shuttle disaster.

"I want to avoid favoring any theory," O'Keefe said. "We'll let the facts speak for what ultimately occurred."

To beef up safety after the Challenger disaster 17 years ago, O'Keefe remarked that contingency plans were made and escape plans were considered.

NASA, however, determined an escape system would have added too much weight to the shuttle and benefits, if any existed, would have been marginal. O'Keefe added, however, NASA will take another look at the possibility.

In addition to asking about the escape plans, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., inquired about the dismissal of many members of the advisory board following the escape system recommendation.

O'Keefe responded in 1997 it was decided the board should be "infused with a fresh perspective" and limited the terms of the members.

"We're at this tremendous fork in the road," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said, questioning O'Keefe about the future direction of the space program and whether it should remain steady, move to robotics or expand its vision.

Other panel members also asked about the necessity of continuing manned space missions.

"It's not a question of either or, robotics or humans," O'Keefe stated. The question is of compatibility and balancing unmanned space flight with human missions, he added.

The Hubble space telescope is the perfect example of a project that required both unmanned and manned missions, he said.

"It was considered a piece of space junk 10 years ago," O'Keefe said. "Human intervention was needed to fix the telescope."

As a result, the administrator noted, astronomy textbooks have been rewritten. As Hubble has provided scientists with astounding information, so will the International Space Station yield results never imagined, O'Keefe said, asking for patience for future results.

A number of committee members expressed their support for continuing the space program, although many wanted reassurances human lives would not be put in danger. O'Keefe said every eight to 10 flights, a shuttle is torn down and rebuilt as new.

"It was as safe as we know how to make it," O'Keefe said. However, the investigation, O'Keefe acknowledged, might show age was, in fact, a factor.

During the 16-day mission of the Columbia, however, the more than 4,000 sensors aboard the shuttle did not indicate any damage would jeopardize the mission.

To investigate what did happen Feb. 1, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was formed. But questions about its independence arose.

"This won't pass anybody's smell test for independence," said Sen. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., explaining the charter guiding the board says the investigation report goes to O'Keefe.

The hearing closed with co-chair Rep. Sherwood Boehlert's, R-N.Y., request and O'Keefe's assurances the board's charter will be reviewed and changed appropriately to ensure an independent review of evidence.

"We need to strengthen evidence that (CAIB) is truly independent," Boehlert emphasized. "I have no quarrel with the composition of the board."

The members — from the Navy, Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration — are highly qualified, he added, but additional experts should be added and the board's report should be released the public, Congress and the president at the same time NASA receives it.

NASA will continue to work with Adm. Hal Gehman, chair of CAIB, to ensure the independence of the board, O'Keefe said.

"We will be guided by the findings of the board," O'Keefe said.

(UPI photos number WAP2003021205, WAP2003021206, WAP2003021207, WAP2003021208, WAP2003021209, and WAP2003021210 are available)

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