Congressional debate on future of U.S. space program revived

Hearings into disaster to be held on Capitol Hill

The Loss of Columbia


WASHINGTON - The breakup of the space shuttle Columbia yesterday has revived a long-simmering debate in Congress about the future of the nation's space program. The disaster, which is certain to lead to new hearings, also renewed questions about whether cost-cutting and management problems at NASA might be compromising astronauts' safety.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican and member of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the space agency, was walking in her Dallas neighborhood when she heard the shuttle break up, a noise she initially mistook for a sonic boom.

Later, in a phone conference with reporters, she said she would call for hearings and expressed concern about NASA, an agency with a history of staff shortages and a new administrator who is struggling to cope with cost overruns on its international space station project.

In a report to Congress in January, the General Accounting Office said NASA "continues to face challenges that threaten its ability to effectively run its largest program."

Hutchison said she had no reason to believe that cost-cutting led to yesterday's events, "but I don't think that you can continue to make draconian cuts in this budget and accomplish our mission safely."

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the Democrat who until this year was chairman of the oversight subcommittee, said the Senate "needs to review how the agency is striking the balance between management efficiency and the primacy of safety."

Lawmakers from both parties were quick to offer condolences to the families of the seven crew members who died and spoke strongly of their commitment to sending people into space.

"Astronauts, on the strength of their daring and devotion, have always held a special place in our hearts and our dreams," said Rep. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, who represents the Houston area.

"As the most fitting tribute to their courageous service and sacrifice, let us recommit ourselves to ... a bold vision for America in space."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the minority whip, who along with other House Democrats spent the weekend at a retreat in Pennsylvania, said, "We will continue to be explorers in the face of tragedy."

The disintegration of the shuttle will undoubtedly shift priorities on Capitol Hill.

Already grappling with Medicare reform, tax cuts and a proposal by the president to increase spending on global AIDS, members of Congress must now turn their attention to their role as overseers of the investigation of the Columbia disaster.

For some veteran lawmakers, the work recalls the grim task of 17 years ago when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican who served on the select committee that oversaw the Challenger investigation, said getting answers to the Columbia disaster would be more difficult.

"The Challenger exploded on liftoff; there were all kinds of videotapes. You could see the O-rings fail and the plane acting like a blowtorch, coming out of the solid-rocket booster," Sensenbrenner said, adding that because the explosion occurred over the ocean, "the Navy was able to recover about 60 percent of the wreckage."

In the case of Columbia, he said, "We have a shuttle that disintegrated at 200,000 feet. We don't have any videotape, and the wreckage is strewn out on land and probably more damaged than the Challenger was."

Sensenbrenner and other lawmakers said that Congress must quickly convene hearings into the loss of the shuttle.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and former astronaut who sits on the Senate panel that oversees the space program, said he quickly contacted Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Commerce Committee, about opening hearings.

McCain said late yesterday afternoon that he would make a decision early in the week on the timing, Nelson said.

In recent months, Nelson has been critical of NASA for budget shuffling, which he said was delaying safety upgrades in the shuttle program. He even warned publicly of the potential for "catastrophic loss." But he said he did not believe yesterday's events were related to those safety delays.

Several lawmakers, including Hutchison, put the crash in the context of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying that space exploration is far too important to the nation's security to pull back.

"There is no question that our exploration of space has given us satellite capabilities that have been so important in our recent national defense," Hutchison said.

Others gave a different reason: national pride.

Of the suggestion that manned space flights are simply not worth the risk, said Republican Rep. Dave Weldon of Florida: "We had that debate after the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom and his crew. We had that debate after the Challenger, and we'll have that debate again. My prediction is the American people will want to move ahead."

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