- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin yesterday told a House panel that some recommendations by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board are too costly and unrealistic, but astronauts will be safer when shuttle flights resume this summer.

Space exploration always comes with great risks of danger, Mr. Griffin told members of the House Science Committee.

“These next two flights are test flights. It needs to be fully understood that they carry the risks of test flights, because we simply do not have the capability to assess the efficiency of our improvement without returning to flight. But we believe it is much improved,” said Mr. Griffin, who took over in April.

The investigative board said Monday that there are three major recommendations that have not been met — eliminating ice and foam debris that caused Columbia to explode upon re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, a need for repair tools and repair techniques.

“We believe that we have tremendously reduced the amount of debris which is shed or will be shed by the external tank on this next shuttle mission, as compared to all prior shuttle missions,” Mr. Griffin said.

Asked by Rep. Al Green, Texas Democrat, whether NASA will have repair tools and techniques for the next launch, Mr. Griffin replied, “No, sir, we will not.”

“Those three recommendations in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report were, of course, well-intended and serve as admirable goals. The ideal state would be to have no debris coming from the tank; we have not been able to achieve that.

“The ideal state would be to have repair tools and repair techniques which could deal with a flaw in the tile, the shuttle’s entry heat-protection system, once we’re on orbit; we don’t know how to do that,” said Mr. Griffin. He estimated that “hundreds of millions” have been spent pursuing those recommendations.

He said the risk from debris has been reduced to an acceptable level, which he defined as risk “consistent with other risks associated with the shuttle space flight system.”

NASA will complete its review of flight readiness today and then determine whether Space Shuttle Discovery can be launched July 13.

Panel members on both sides of the aisle praised Mr. Griffin’s work in the two months he has served as the 11th administrator of the space agency.

Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, New York Republican and committee chairman, said Mr. Griffin has “taken on his duties with gusto and with candor” and is “righting old wrongs, questioning old verities and rescuing programs in distress.”

Lawmakers, however, questioned why NASA has not presented a blueprint of President Bush’s vision for future space exploration, including a manned mission to Mars, since it was presented nearly two years ago.

“We are pretty much flying blind right now,” Mr. Boehlert said.

Mr. Griffin said a team of scientists was working on program priorities and will complete that and the blueprint for future programs before September.

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