Status Report

AIP FYI #143: Senate Committee Takes Another Look at NASA Programs

By SpaceRef Editor
November 7, 2003
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Testifying at an October 29 hearing of the Senate Science,
Technology and Space Subcommittee, Robert Park of the American
Physical Society touched on perhaps the single most defining
characteristic of the International Space Station program: the
long-running controversy over the station’s merit. Said Park, “Ten
years ago in this very room I appeared before this committee to
testify on the redesigned space station. If I repeated that
testimony today, it would still fit. . . . a permanently-manned
space station in Earth orbit cannot be justified on the basis of
science alone.”

Much has changed in the last ten years. The orbiting station is now
larger than a jumbo jet, having been assembled in 50 space walks.
Many tons of station hardware are now poised at the Kennedy Space
Center for transport. Yet during this time the station crew size
has been dramatically reduced, as have the projections about the
scope and relative importance of the station’s research program.
The controversy continues.

October 29 was a busy day on Capitol Hill for NASA. There was a
morning hearing in the House Science Committee on NASA
reorganization, and both a morning and afternoon hearing in the
Senate. The Senate hearings were before the Senate Commerce,
Science and Transportation Committee and one of its subcommittees.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe testified at the morning Senate
hearing on the future of NASA and space exploration. Committee
chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and his Republican and Democratic
colleagues spoke of the need for a national vision for NASA,
presidential leadership, and their doubts about the ability of
NASA’s culture and procedures to respond to safety reforms. O’Keefe
responded by talking about the agency’s strategic plan and overall
mission objectives, and discussed three major limitations (power
generation/propulsion, human survival, and assured communications)
that must be overcome to explore beyond low earth orbit. Also
testifying was Admiral Harold Gehman of the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board who told senators that NASA’s institutional
problems were as responsible for the accident as was the detached
foam insulation. He decried the lack of a replacement for the
shuttle. A partial replacement, the proposed $15+ billion Orbital
Space Plane that would be used for crew transportation, is highly
controversial. McCain declared that House Science Committee
Chairman Sherwood Boehlert’s (R-NY) and Ranking Minority Member
Ralph Hall’s (D-TX) criticisms of the plane’s program were “well
taken, well noted.” Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) was quite
critical of the NASA Administrator in the context of recent concerns
about station crew safety, saying O’Keefe was “long on vision, but
short on safety.” O’Keefe spoke of extensive discussions that were
held before the last flight of the station crew, saying “In the end,
the risk judgement was made,” and that the comfort level with this
decision was high. Speaking later of the return to the use of the
shuttle, O’Keefe declared, “the calendar is not going to drive
this.” Also discussed was a manned mission to Mars, with other
witnesses calling for this to be a clearly defined national goal.

Where the morning hearing was restrained by time, and so had to move
quickly, the afternoon hearing was more expansive. It readily
illustrated the long-running controversy about the merits of the
space station. William Readdy, NASA Associate Director for Space
Flight, described the station as “that gateway to exploration beyond
low Earth orbit.” Subcommittee chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS), while
clearly not an opponent of the agency or its programs, spoke of
“immediate concerns” about the safety of the station’s crew, and
“whether or not the mission and scientific research done aboard the
station is enough to sustain a national vision for space
exploration.” Brownback also has doubts about the orbital space
plane program, saying that NASA has spent $5 billion on five
previous replacement programs for the shuttle, with “not much to
show for it.” In addition to Park and Readdy, Allen Li of the U.S.
General Accounting Office testified at this afternoon hearing. Li’s
testimony was short and to the point: station “assembly is at a
standstill,” “research is limited,” transportation of science
materials is limited, station costs will be higher, and “partner
funding is uncertain.” He described the safety changes needed in
NASA’s culture as “monumental.” Other witnesses offering differing
views on the value of research to be performed on the station,
ranging from loss of astronaut bone and muscle mass to the
psychological dimensions of crew members living together for a long
period to the value of protein crystallization. It is unlikely
that many minds were changed, although this hearing did seem to
raise new concerns about the space station program.

Richard M. Jones

Media and Government Relations Division

The American Institute of Physics

(301) 209-3094

SpaceRef staff editor.