WASHINGTON — In April, one of the country's most respected space experts told a House oversight panel about potential hazards facing NASA's shuttle fleet. Months earlier, the Senate's own space panel heard similar rumblings on shuttle safety.
But the testimony -- and pointed questions raised by a handful of lawmakers -- went largely unnoticed by a Congress, White House and public absorbed with other matters. Then came the Feb. 1 breakup of the shuttle Columbia and the deaths of seven astronauts.
This week, the House and Senate will open a joint inquiry into the disaster and its implications for the U.S. space program. It seems safe to assume that this time, the nation will be listening.
"This is a program that reflects the hopes and aspirations of a lot of Americans," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "We just lost seven wonderful people. One of the very best ways to honor them is to make sure that every available dollar is spent on safety and good science."
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who will testify Wednesday before the House-Senate hearing, declined Sunday to comment on media reports that have questioned whether budgetary pressures compromised shuttle safety.
"I don't want to speculate on what others may think," O'Keefe told CNN's "Late Edition." He said a board of accident investigation experts would get to the bottom of the disaster. And, he said, the space agency's goal remains to "get back to flying safely as soon as we possibly can." Lawmakers, however, are likely to quiz O'Keefe on whether the government has starved the shuttle of needed funding, and whether the orbiter's role should be reconsidered. Although the three remaining shuttles -- Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour -- were grounded after the Columbia disaster, they had been projected to be available for use for at least a decade longer, and possibly until 2020.
That timetable now will get a second look from President Bush and Congress. The government must decide, among many other things, how much money to put into the shuttle program and how much into a new generation of space vehicles, manned or unmanned. The president's fiscal 2004 budget, developed before the Columbia accident, seeks $3.9 billion for the shuttles in a total NASA budget of about $15.5 billion.
Many lawmakers believe that a broad review of space policy is overdue. "Congress should have been debating where the manned space program was headed a long time ago," Wyden said.
Wyden is one of several senators who in recent years have worked in relative obscurity on the science, technology and space subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He chaired the subcommittee on Sept. 6, 2001, when it heard from a NASA advisor and other experts on funding pressures that some said could erode shuttle safety.
Five days later, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon turned the government's energy to a campaign against terrorism. In the ensuing months, Congress would be consumed by domestic security, military operations in Afghanistan and a brewing confrontation with Iraq.
Space policy -- a second-tier issue even before Sept. 11 -- was given even lower priority. But it was not forgotten. On April 18, 2002, the House science subcommittee on space and aeronautics would examine shuttle safety and space policy again.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), the panel chairman, that day urged the administration "to get its act together in space." Referring to a shuttle disaster in 1986, he went on: "I was in the White House when the Challenger blew up, and I never want anything like that to happen again. We take this very seriously, and I think the administration needs to pay more attention."
Richard D. Blomberg, the former chairman of NASA's aerospace safety advisory panel, told Rohrabacher's subcommittee: "In all my years of involvement I have never been as worried for space shuttle safety as I am right now. All of my instincts suggest that the current approach is planting the seeds for future danger."
However, Blomberg cautioned -- as he had earlier told the Senate panel -- that he did not believe the shuttles to be in immediate jeopardy.
In another significant exchange that day, Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, asked a NASA official whether the international space station orbiting Earth could be supported if shuttles were grounded "for some period of time."
"There would not be a way to do that, sir," said Frederick D. Gregory, NASA's associate administrator for human spaceflight.
Interviewed after the Columbia disaster, Gordon said he does not want to point fingers or find scapegoats in the forthcoming hearings. Rather, he said, he wants to "solve problems in the future."