- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

NASA has spent $152.4 million in the six months since the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated to fund the investigation and recover debris, the space agency said yesterday.

Although the agency provided little detail about the new expenditures, it is the first time the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has quantified the costs related to the Feb. 1 loss of Columbia.

“We’re able to fine-tune the numbers a little better now,” NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said.

That’s because the recovery of Columbia debris has ended, the investigation is concluding and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is less than four weeks from completing its exhaustive report on the mechanical and management failures that contributed to the loss of Columbia and its crew of seven astronauts.

In contrast, NASA spent $62 million following the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. The figure is adjusted for inflation and stated in 2003 dollars.

In addition to the new accounting of expenses, NASA also said it has saved $32 million by not flying two shuttle missions that were scheduled for March and May. Both shuttle missions were scheduled to travel to the International Space Station to continue construction of the orbiting laboratory.

The $152.4 million spent by the space agency includes $111.9 million to support the accident investigation board’s inquiry with research and analysis into the causes behind the shuttle’s breakup.

Mr. Beutel said he had no details on the $111.9 million in research and analysis to support the investigation. Among the most expensive research projects was the high-speed foam impact testing done at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. That work provided accident investigators with the evidence they needed to draw a link between the foam strike about 82 seconds after Columbia lifted off with a hole in its left wing.

In the definitive test July 7, a piece of foam obliterated a carbon panel taken from the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

The series of foam impact tests cost NASA $4 million. The four carbon panels used in the tests cost $800,000 each.

The space agency spent $32 million to fund the investigation into the loss of Challenger.

The second-largest expense in the wake of Columbia’s breakup has been the cost to gather shuttle debris, according to the figures released by NASA.

NASA spent $21.8 million to recover shuttle debris. The Federal Emergency Management Agency spent an estimated $300 million to track down about 84,000 pieces of Columbia that recovery crews retrieved.

The bulk of the recovery effort ended in April.

NASA spent $30 million to salvage pieces from Challenger.

NASA also gave $18.7 million to the 13-member investigation board to fund expenses including travel, rent at offices in Houston and Arlington, the cost to hold public hearings, its Web site and some salaries. Five civilian members of the investigation board are NASA employees — Douglas Osheroff, John Logsdon, Sally Ride, Roger Tetrault and Sheila Widnall — but they are paid out of the investigation board’s $18.7 million budget.

Harold W. Gehman Jr., chairman of the investigation board, is on the payroll of the Office of Management and Budget, and the remaining board members are government workers who continue to get paid by their employers.

The investigation board has had a staff of up to 100 people, but now it is winding down operations. The five civilian members of the investigation board could be off the payroll as soon as Aug. 8.

Despite the $152.4 million in investigation-related costs, there has been no criticism of the spending.

“We’re not interested in doing this on the cheap,” said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. “We are aware of [NASAs] estimates, and we’re doing our own analysis to make sure their estimates are accurate.”

NASA stands to get reimbursed for much of the money it has spent. Following Columbia’s disintegration, Congress approved a $50 million appropriations to cover expenses. Approval of another $50 million supplemental appropriation is pending.

The $32 million saved in fuel and personnel costs by scrapping two shuttle flights also will help offset investigation-related costs. That figure will grow because NASA is unlikely to make another shuttle launch before March, the goal NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has set for the next shuttle mission.

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