Tuesday, June 3, 2003

A key lawmaker yesterday accused NASA of being overly optimistic about how long it can continue flying its aging fleet of space shuttles, and he urged the space agency to speed up plans for a replacement craft.

“What some of the optimists are saying is the space shuttle will be good for another 20 years. I don’t share that optimism,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Science, which oversees NASA.

The shuttle is not the “vehicle to serve our needs for the next generation,” the congressman said during a meeting with reporters.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration hopes to fly its three remaining shuttles as long as 2020. NASA made its first shuttle flight in 1981.

Mr. Boehlert’s skepticism about the shuttle fleet’s lifespan could put more pressure on NASA to complete development of the Orbital Space Plane, intended to ferry astronauts from the International Space Station by 2010.

“NASA has to get its act together with the [space plane], tell us what it’s proposing and justify that proposal,” Mr. Boehlert said. “There is widespread support for a replacement vehicle, and the Orbital Space Plane might be it, but I’d like to have NASA come up with some very specific plans.”

NASA already faces criticism because of the project’s cost. NASA began developing the space plane last year and may spend up to $13 billion on the vehicle.

“One of the questions is indeed how it would interact with the shuttle, what the shuttle would be used for, for how long?” said David Goldston, chief of staff for the House Science Committee.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board will help shed light on how long the shuttle fleet can remain in flight.

The board’s report will outline the factors responsible for the Feb. 1 disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the measures the space agency must take to rectify the causes behind the tragedy that killed seven astronauts.

“You’ve got to see what the Gehman commission tells us. Maybe the fix is not going to be as difficult or as expensive as some suggest,” Mr. Boehlert said.

Harold W. Gehman, chairman of the 13-member independent investigation board, has said repeatedly that the space shuttles are suffering the effects of aging, and investigators could recommend that NASA come up with better ways to detect signs of age.

While NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has said he hopes the next shuttle flight can happen as soon as October, Mr. Boehlert said it likely will be next year before the next shuttle flight.

“In general I am confident that the shuttle will fly again. I can’t tell you when. I think the original schedule outlined by NASA would fall more in the heading of wishful thinking than reality,” Mr. Boehlert said.

Mr. Boehlert also voiced support for the investigation board. He applauded its independence and said negotiations continue with investigators to gain congressional access to testimony the board has taken during interviews with NASA personnel.

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