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THE COLUMBIA DISASTER

Old Allies to Lead Shuttle Investigations

February 05, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The two Republicans leading the congressional investigations into the Columbia disaster are longtime allies who are of one mind as they confront their next mission: fixing America's space program and setting its future course.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who will chair the Senate hearing, and Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York, who will lead the House probe, believe strongly that space exploration must go on -- a view shared by political leaders of both parties, including President Bush.

But it remains to be seen what form future exploration will take: Will NASA continue relying on its shuttle fleet, now down to three aging orbiters? Will Congress finally pay for a new generation of vehicles? Will unmanned missions return?

The answers will emerge in the coming weeks and months, as the search continues for the cause of the nation's second shuttle catastrophe and as an independent NASA panel joins the investigation.

Some NASA critics argue the debate in Congress will not have its rightful starting point -- a virtual clean slate -- with McCain and Boehlert in charge.

Still, the two lawmakers' penchant to do what they believe is right, even at their own political peril, introduces an element of unpredictability to the upcoming hearings.

For now, this much seems certain: After a top-to-bottom congressional review of the space program and of NASA itself, space exploration will continue, perhaps with substantial new funding, if only to bolster NASA's quality control and safety procedures.

McCain plans to gavel his Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee into session Feb. 12, with NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe as the leadoff witness. Boehlert has set Feb. 27 as the opening day of his committee's investigation.

Despite the outpouring of bipartisan support for space exploration, however, some analysts expressed doubt that a happy outcome for NASA is inevitable.

"The space program is so bound up in America's sense of identity that it has broader political support than any other federal undertaking. But the support tends to be symbolic rather than tangible," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank. "It gets support as long as it doesn't take money from other things that [politicians] really care about."

Moreover, he said, the ballooning federal budget deficit casts doubt on the widespread assumption that NASA is all but certain to get a large infusion of funds.

"The macroeconomic environment is not encouraging," Thompson said.

McCain agreed, saying that "where safety is concerned, [NASA] probably will get some additional money."

But beyond that, all bets are off, he said.

"I don't necessarily, automatically think this means we'll be spending more money," McCain said.

Indeed such caution is also coming from other influential voices in Congress.

"Maybe I'll be proven wrong, but I just don't think more money is the answer," said Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees NASA spending.

A leading champion of boosting NASA funding is Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), a state with a huge space program presence.

"When you're pushing the envelope, you've got to make sure, when you have an accident, that you don't back off," she warned.

Thus it falls to McCain, 66, and Boehlert, 62, to manage -- and perhaps shape -- this debate.

Both were elected to the House in 1982, but McCain is now in his third Senate term. He is still remembered for his years as a POW in Vietnam, when he chose to endure solitary confinement and torture after his captors offered him the chance to go home -- ahead of POWs who had been captured earlier.

In the Senate, the former Navy pilot launched a crusade against pork-barrel spending, offending nearly every one of his colleagues along the way.

McCain's highest profile cause was campaign finance reform. After years of Sisyphean struggle, he finally prevailed in banning soft money contributions -- over President Bush's opposition.

Little-known beyond the Northeast, "Sherry" Boehlert also has disagreed with Bush -- and the GOP majority -- on an array of issues. And he, too, has not been shy about saying so.

Boehlert was such an outspoken champion of campaign finance reform that House Republican leaders considered revoking his chairmanship of the science committee. But that didn't deter him. After voting for the reform bill, he said: "I didn't agonize. I didn't sweat. I just cast my vote."

The Utica, N.Y., native also is a dedicated environmentalist; green is the dominant color of his official Web site. His district has been affected by acid rain.

Boehlert strongly opposes Bush's plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration. But such differences did not stop him from appearing with Bush at an Earth Day event in April.

Those seeking insights into Boehlert's approach toward Big Science may do well to recall his about-face on a proposed atom smasher that he once backed.

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