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FYI Number 111: August 27, 2003

House Science Committee Members React to Shuttle Accident Report

Following yesterday's publication of the 248 -page report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, several members of the House Science Committee released statements. Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) also conducted a 40-minute briefing to discuss the committee's plans.

Congress returns to Washington next week. Boehlert announced that next Thursday the Science Committee will hold the first in a series of hearings to review the findings of the Investigation Board led by retired Admiral Harold Gehman. Gehman will testify at this hearing. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe will testify the following week, followed by other hearings on the report and the space agency's response to it.

Chairman Boehlert praised the work of the Investigation Board in his written and oral comments, citing their rigor and independence. "They have performed a great service to the nation and particularly to those of us who must set policy for NASA," he said.

The chairman would not predict how policy makers would ultimately respond to the Board's recommendations, and to the future nature of the space program. Saying that both the Congress and the Bush Administration "must now chart the future for NASA," Boehlert said, "We need to do so without any preconceived notions about what the space program should look like." Cautioning against a rush to judgment, Boehlert said that both costs and risks must be considered. Saying that Americans have traditionally been explorers, he said "we are still enamored with humans in space. Humans are just unique, they are creative, they have judgment, there is no machine that can be as creative. . . . but then again, we are going to have to analyze what is being accomplished in space with humans. And then we are going to have to look at how much of that could be accomplished just by machines." After looking at the costs and risk, the determination must then be made, "is it worth it?"

In statements released by the committee, Research Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) addressed the manned space flight question, saying "I believe it is likely that we will conclude that a shift in emphasis toward unmanned flight is reasonable for both safety and research value." Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) stated that "NASA's failure to develop new space transportation capabilities after spending billions has resulted in flying the Shuttle longer than necessary."

Boehlert promised that committee members and staff will be going through the report very carefully, and while rejecting a micromanagement role, said that the committee would exercise careful oversight. He said that he is looking to NASA for a plan on how it will address the recommendations of the Investigation Board, and complimented NASA for not being overly defensive in trying to deflect criticism. Regarding Congress, Boehlert explained the important role that appropriators have in the funding process, and said that authorizers will be working closely with them. The chairman acknowledged that while Congress has traditionally supported NASA, actual funding has not matched this support. Congress will, he said, have to make some tough funding decisions, as will the Bush Administration.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
(301) 209-3095

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