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The Nation | The Columbia Disaster

Congress to Assess NASA's Future Aims

Lawmakers will look at long-term exploration policies and whether budgetary shortfalls played a part in Columbia's demise.

February 04, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders of both parties on Monday promised to investigate whether NASA's funding shortages played a role in the Columbia disaster and to focus on the troubled space program's long-term future.

After a closed-door briefing on Columbia from NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, lawmakers said that committees in both the House and Senate will hold hearings, starting as early as next week.

"America is committed to space exploration," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Starting either Wednesday or Thursday of next week, McCain said, his panel will focus on "the immediate cause, and the remedies that can be made as soon as possible, so that the program can continue."

The next priority, he said, is to examine "the long-term policies and goals of space exploration -- what's the best way to accomplish that, whether we have spent the money safely and efficiently."

The committee's first witness is expected to be O'Keefe.

In his briefing Monday evening, O'Keefe provided no new details, according to lawmakers as they emerged from the 45-minute session. "It's clear they're still looking for the cause," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

In the House, the oversight hearings are scheduled to commence on Feb. 27, led by Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee.

He also promised to conduct a thorough review of NASA's safety procedures and assess its long-term goals.

"We're going to have to face some very difficult decisions in the days ahead -- policy decisions," Boehlert said. "Our analysis is going to have to focus on: Were there any policies in place that led to the loss of Columbia?"

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said Democrats share the desire for an unvarnished look at the space agency.

"Everything should be on the table -- all of the issues, all of the questions, including those involving budget and funding," he said after the briefing.

NASA critics have accused the space agency of giving the shuttle program's safety considerations short shrift in the face of funding pressures over the years, exacerbated by the cost overruns of the yet-to-be-completed international space station, which forced cuts in many other NASA programs.

"All this needs to be sorted out. But I wouldn't immediately jump to the conclusion that we have cut back on safety," McCain said.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who flew aboard Columbia in 1986 as a House member, said that "inevitably, there will be a discussion out of this about how much NASA should be funded, should there be another orbiter built, and in fact, has it been so poorly funded in recent years that maybe, just maybe, it wasn't as safe as it should be?"

Nelson, also a member of the Commerce Committee, accused both the Bush and Clinton administrations of shortchanging shuttle safety.

"They have been trying to starve NASA to death while demanding more and more," he said.

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