Status Report

Rep. Boehlert’s Opening Statement: Hearing on The Future of Human Space Flight

By SpaceRef Editor
October 16, 2003
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I want to welcome everyone here this morning to this important hearing. At our previous hearings on the Columbia accident, both witnesses and Members repeatedly made the point that NASA has suffered from the lack of a clear national vision for the future of human space flight. Over the long-term, NASA will be successful only if it is pursuing a clear and broad national consensus with sustained and adequate funding. As the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) noted in its report, that hasn’t been the case for three decades.

Now, we ought to admit that one reason such a consensus has been lacking is that it’s hard to reach and even harder to pursue over time. We need to be candid and realistic about that in our discussions today. And our vision can’t be based on some dreamy, ahistorical view that we can recreate the Apollo era.

I, personally, don’t know yet what that vision for the future of human space flight should be. Today’s hearing is just the beginning of our efforts to build a national consensus. But I do think there are some principles and ideas we need to keep in mind as we develop a consensus.

First, any consensus has to be arrived at jointly by the White House, the Congress and NASA, and the consensus has to include an agreement to pay for whatever vision is outlined. NASA needs to do its part by coming up with credible cost estimates and schedules for projects – something that has been sorely lacking in recent decades and something that has not been done yet for the next major human space flight project, the Orbital Space Plane.

Second, we need to keep in mind that human space flight is not the only NASA responsibility, or, as far as I’m concerned, the most important of its responsibilities. I think the Augustine Commission got it right back in 1990 when it listed space science and earth science as NASA’s top priorities, and added several more activities in order of importance before it got to human space flight.

Third is a related point, NASA will not have an unlimited budget. The federal government has too few resources and too many obligations to give NASA a blank check. Any vision that assumes massive spending increases for NASA is doomed to fail. That is especially true in the near future when the focus should be on getting the agency’s house in order to carry out its current tasks.

Fourth, we need to be honest about the purposes and challenges inherent in human flight. Our witnesses today are pretty honest in their testimony on this point. The primary reason for human flight is the human impulse – some would say destiny – to explore. Human exploration is not necessarily the best way to advance science or technology, and it certainly is the most expensive and riskiest way to do so. I would add that nothing about China’s launch alters these statements.

Fifth, we need to learn from the mistakes we’ve made over the past 30 years. The Space Shuttle and the Space Station are remarkable achievements – something we are too prone to forget. But they are also extraordinarily expensive projects – mind-bogglingly expensive compared to the original estimates – and they haven’t performed as advertised or done as much as hoped to advance human exploration or knowledge. We have to avoid going down the same paths in the future.

So, we need to be thoughtful and deliberate and coldly analytical in putting together a vision for the future of human space flight. It has to be a long-term vision; we’re not about to embark on any crash program – the technical challenges alone are enough to prevent that.

We have assembled today an extraordinary panel to help us sort these issues out and I look forward to hearing from them. Mr. Hall?

SpaceRef staff editor.