- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Members of a House panel yesterday supported a budget increase to help NASA improve the safety of its manned space flight program in the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster three months ago.They also urged the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to improve the way it handles internal communications and criticized the agency for ignoring engineers’ warnings that Columbia could have suffered serious damage when foam insulation shed from its external tank 81 seconds after liftoff Jan. 16 and hit the shuttle’s left wing.”I do hope you come back with a system for communication so even some potentially irrelevant observation is examined. I don’t know and you don’t know if something could have been done after the takeoff,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican and member of the House Appropriations VA, HUD and independent agencies subcommittee.NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said after the hearing that Mrs. Hutchison’s idea to have a clearinghouse where NASA employees can file concerns has merit.”It’s a terrific idea,” he said. “Her point is exactly right.”Members of the appropriations panel also expressed concern that NASA may not have enough money in fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1, to implement what could be a lengthy list of recommendations from the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board.”Most of us, if not all, still believe NASA is vastly underfunded,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican.President Bush has requested $15.47 billion for NASA for fiscal 2004, a 3.1 percent increase over the current $15 billion budget. The president submitted his budget request before Feb. 1, when Columbia’s disintegration over Texas killed seven astronauts returning to Earth.NASA hopes to return to flight by the end of the year.It is not clear how long it will take to implement the investigation board’s recommendations or how much NASA will have to spend to make changes outlined in the recommendations.Mr. O’Keefe said NASA expects to have money to cover costs associated with the investigation board’s recommendations partly because the agency made only three shuttle flights this fiscal year. It planned to make seven, but the shuttle fleet has been grounded since the Columbia accident.Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, said NASA needs another $500 million in fiscal 2004.Harold W. Gehman Jr., chairman of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said this week the panel’s recommendations won’t be guided by funding considerations.Investigators have made two preliminary recommendations so far, and it may not issue its final report until June. The later investigators issue the report, the more difficult it will be for NASA to receive an additional appropriation this fiscal year to help cover the costs, Miss Mikulski said.Mr. O’Keefe pledged not to rob funding for other programs to fund shuttle operations. Shuttle funding alone would increase from $3.7 billion this fiscal year to $3.9 billion in fiscal 2004, under the president’s budget request.Meanwhile, Mr. O’Keefe said he had not seen an April 22 internal NASA document concluding that there might have been no way to save the Columbia crew. The report analyzed whether the astronauts could have removed equipment to reduce the shuttle’s weight and potentially reduce the effect of heating during re-entry.The report released yesterday examined removing between 20,387 pounds and 31,321 pounds — including fuel, food, water, clothing, radiator panels, cargo bay experiment canisters and computer hardware. NASA concluded that reducing the shuttle’s weight wouldn’t have made a difference if Columbia already had serious damage to its left wing upon re-entry.

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