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Columbia Panel Autonomy Avowed

February 13, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Bowing to bipartisan congressional pressure, NASA's administrator agreed Wednesday to take further steps to ensure the independence of a blue-ribbon panel formed to investigate the breakup of the shuttle Columbia.

Republicans joined Democrats in urging Administrator Sean O'Keefe to extend the current 60-day timetable for the panel's report on the Feb. 1 accident and to revise its marching orders to guarantee that the president and Congress receive findings directly.

House Science Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said he also wanted O'Keefe to make it clear -- in writing -- that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board "doesn't have to march over to NASA headquarters to get approval" for how it conducts the probe. At stake, said Boehlert and other lawmakers, was the credibility of an inquiry likely to bore into the role of private contractors, NASA and others in its search for an explanation into the second shuttle catastrophe in 17 years.

A senior Science Committee Democrat, Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, said the current guidelines for the investigation "won't pass anybody's 'smell test' of independence."

O'Keefe promised that he would consult immediately with the retired Navy admiral who heads the board to make any needed changes to its mandate.

"You have our assurances that this distinguished board will be able to act with genuine independence," O'Keefe said, seeking to settle a simmering controversy between Congress and the Bush administration.

Assuming that some changes are indeed made -- and lawmakers said afterward that O'Keefe had assured them of a positive response -- it would be the second time in less than a week that he had given ground on the matter. On Feb. 6, NASA reworked the board's charter to give it more autonomy.

Appearing before Congress 11 days after the Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven aboard, O'Keefe also parried wide-ranging questions about the direction of the U.S. space program and whether budget constraints have jeopardized the shuttles' safety.

The forum was a joint hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

Boehlert and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, two Republicans who are strong supporters of the U.S. space program, jointly chaired the hearing.

Wednesday's hearing was the first formal exchange between the administration and Congress on the disaster. The House and Senate will lead parallel inquiries over the next several months.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of a NASA oversight subcommittee, said the space program is at a crossroads: "The options before us now are to continue with current policies, dramatically scale back or approve new initiatives that will take us back to the moon, to Mars or beyond."

While determined to scrutinize NASA from top to bottom, lawmakers hold O'Keefe in high regard. The Senate unanimously confirmed his appointment in December 2001.

On safety, O'Keefe asserted that NASA is always vigilant for potential hazards before a launch, during a flight and after a landing. "Every time [a shuttle] goes up there, it's as safe as we know how to make it," he said.

Despite questions that have emerged about the potential effect of debris striking the shuttle, including a piece of foam that detached from an external tank on liftoff, O'Keefe said there were no indications during Columbia's final mission to suggest that safety had been compromised.

"Whatever determinations are reached regarding the cause of the accident, you will find that complacency is not one of them," he said. "An ethos of safety is evident throughout the agency."

He reiterated the administration's commitment to resuming shuttle flights once safety has been assured.

"Extending the operational life of the remaining shuttle fleet is a good investment," O'Keefe said, because it will ensure that the station fulfills its mission.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, top Democrat on the Senate committee, urged O'Keefe to focus on the next generation of space vehicles. "Let's get on and get your best advice on how we should get going and proceed -- and not just with 'upgrades,' " Hollings said.

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