Senator moves to stimulate space debate


WASHINGTON - After the shuttle Columbia disintegrated Feb. 1, many supporters of NASA expected a renewed national debate on the goals of the space program. But nine months later, supporters of space exploration and its science programs say that the subject appears to be in danger of slipping below the national horizon.

"There have been fits and starts of a national debate," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over NASA.

Hollings plans to introduce a bill today to create a national space commission to oversee NASA's progress in fixing the hardware and the "broken safety culture" identified in the Columbia investigation and to help set goals.

Hollings' bill, which has six sponsors, all Democrats, joins a varied flock of measures on the House side, none likely to see major action this year.

Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, said in testimony last week that the Bush administration would produce a new plan for space. But he refused to predict how long that would take.

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