Mikulski has big role in NASA's fate

Senator from Maryland senior Democrat on panel that funds space agency

The Loss Of Columbia

February 06, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Congress is preparing to take a close look at NASA's budget and its future after the Columbia disaster, and Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, one of Capitol Hill's most enthusiastic champions of the nation's space programs, has an influential seat at the table.

After a decade of work on space issues, Mikulski will play a key role in the coming weeks in defining Congress' response to the Columbia accident and determining how the nation should explore space in its wake.

As the senior Democrat on the Senate committee that funds the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Mikulski is in a prime spot to help shape the agency's budget - and with it, the direction of the shuttle program and the entire national space agenda.

Mikulski will not be a part of the congressional investigation into the shuttle loss, set to begin next week. That review will be led by the House Science Committee, with a separate series of hearings to be held by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The investigation is to begin Wednesday morning, when the two panels are scheduled to hold a joint hearing with NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

Some members of Congress are raising questions about NASA's investigation, concerned that the external board conducting it - to be led by Harold W. Gehman Jr., a retired Navy admiral - will not be sufficiently independent. They are calling for an outside investigation, perhaps modeled after that of the commission then-President Ronald Reagan established in 1986 after the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

Mikulski said such a board may ultimately be necessary to help determine the future of U.S. space exploration, but for now, she wants to hear from NASA.

"My goal is the immediate one - to solve the Columbia problem. ... I'm concerned about what went wrong," Mikulski said in an interview yesterday. "What I want from NASA is a rigorous, thorough investigation with absolute candor - no holds barred on what happened."

Beyond that, Mikulski said, she and her panel will be assessing "the overall safety, reliability, viability, durability, capability" of the shuttle and considering alternatives for space transportation if the program proves beyond repair.

Mikulski and Sen. Christopher S. Bond, the Missouri Republican who is chairman of the subcommittee, say they want to hold a hearing on shuttle safety as soon as NASA is prepared to present them with information about the Columbia mission.

"If there's some clear, crying need that [NASA] can identify" for shuttle safety, Bond said, he will work to insert money into the first funding measure he can find, whether it's the still-unfinished 2003 budget, a midyear supplemental spending package or next year's budget.

Unlike some of her colleagues, Mikulski said she is not ready to blame the Columbia accident on insufficient funding for the shuttle program in general and safety in particular.

"We have consistently made shuttle safety and astronaut safety our No. 1 priority," she said. But Congress needs to do more than just fund the shuttle, she said, if it wants to advance space exploration; it must establish an entirely new space transportation system.

"We have aging technology, we have an aging work force," Mikulski said of the shuttle program. After they figure out what went wrong with Columbia, she said, Congress and NASA must decide how to run a "balanced 21st-century space program."

Mikulski has long fought to increase funding for NASA even as she has challenged the agency to control its costs and make new strides in space science and exploration.

"Senator Mikulski is and has been one of the foremost champions of NASA and its mission," Bond said. Mikulski sat at the helm of the panel for five years early in her Senate career, and then again from June 2001 until late last year. She "has been steadfast on space shuttle safety. She has made that the No. 1 concern," Bond added.

Her longstanding fascination with science has prompted Mikulski, a third-term senator, to develop an expertise in space programs, colleagues and scientists say, making her a crucial "go-to" player on the issue in Congress at a critical time.

Mikulski, who is better known for fiery speeches on social issues such as labor protections and education, can talk at length about NASA's highly technical programs and missions, sprinkling her discussion with words such as "dazzling" that betray a childlike enchantment with the subject.

"She has a deep, personal, abiding concern and love for the people who take the risks to be astronauts," Bond said.

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