Status Report

U.S. Senator Ernest F. Hollings’ Floor Speech on Introduction of the National Space Commission Act of 2003

By SpaceRef Editor
November 6, 2003
Filed under ,

November 5, 2003

Today, Mr. President, I introduce the National Space Commission Act, S._____, to address the range of issues that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) identified with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and our space program in general, following the tragic loss of the Columbia Space Shuttle and its crew of seven astronauts.

This bill authorizes the creation of a National Space Commission appointed by the President, to ensure that the safety reforms and recommendations of the Columbia investigation board are fully implemented by NASA. The Commission will review and make recommendations regarding NASA’s return-to-flight proposals and institutional changes that NASA will need to make to improve safety in the agency and to improve safety of the Space Shuttle, and other actions to assure future safe transportation to space and to the International Space Station. The Commission will also look at the broader question of how the United States is organized for the safety of space flight across civilian, military and commercial sectors. It will begin to build a consensus on a future vision of space exploration that I hope will rekindle enthusiasm for our space program and generate the necessary support in the Congress and the Administration for these endeavors.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board shone a laser-sharp spotlight upon NASA and its program of human space exploration. Their painstaking work to determine the causes of the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia provides the context and justification for a new national agenda for space, a turning point in the history of space. Though the Board stopped short of laying out this new future, its clear expectation is that the President and Congress should take up where the Board left off.

    “The U.S. civilian space effort has moved forward for more than 30 years without a guiding vision, and none seems imminent. Recommending the content of this debate goes well beyond the Board’s mandate, but we believe that the White House, Congress, and NASA should honor the memory of Columbia’s crew by reflecting on the nation’s future in space and the role of new space transportation capabilities in enabling whatever space goals the nation chooses to pursue.” Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, Volume I, August 2003, p. 210

The legislation I am introducing today, the National Space Commission Act, is designed to respond to this challenge. It is a complex challenge, and a complex undertaking, that now lies before the Congress and the Nation. My bill is not intended to supplant, nor substitute for, the President’s desire to set a new goal into place for the Human Space Flight Program. But as we have seen in the Board’s report, merely setting a far-reaching goal into place for NASA and for the Nation is not enough. It will not resolve the many complex issues raised by Admiral Harold Gehman and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. No, this report, and these challenges, run deeper than a rousing call for future missions to Mars or the Earth’s Moon can resolve. As Admiral Gehman said last week in testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee:

    “In the course of (our) study, we became convinced how difficult it is to get into and out of low Earth orbit. It is extraordinarily dangerous and very difficult to do. We have to do it more safely than 49 out of 50 times, that’s not good enough. No matter what your vision is for human space flight, whether it’s Mars or the L2 or the Moon or whatever it is, it starts in low Earth orbit. We need some leadership to say, ‘Just getting into and out of low Earth orbit is a goal worthy of itself, without killing a lot of people.’ And that’s hard to argue, because it isn’t very jazzy.” Hearing on NASA’s Future, October 29, 2003

Since the inception of the human space flight program, seventeen astronauts have lost their lives and all were avoidable. In its investigative work, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board reached several fundamental conclusions that went beyond the specific technical and physical causes of the loss of Columbia. The Columbia Board found basic flaws in how NASA managers behaved, the belief system that lay behind NASA attitudes and behavior, and NASA’s understanding of basic technical and organizational requirements of safety.

    “The attitudes and decision-making of Shuttle Program managers and engineers during the events leading up to this accident were clearly overconfident and often bureaucratic in nature.” Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, Volume I, August 2003, p.177

    “NASA’s bureaucratic culture kept important information from reaching engineers and managers alike. The same NASA whose engineers showed initiative and a solid working knowledge of how to get things done fast had a managerial culture with an allegiance to bureaucracy and cost-efficiency that squelched the engineers’ efforts. When it came to NASA managers’ own actions, however, a different set of rules prevailed. The Board found that Mission Management Team decision-making operated outside the rules even as it held its engineers to a stifling protocol.

    Each decision, taken by itself, seemed correct, routine, and indeed, insignificant and unremarkable. Yet, in retrospect, the cumulative effect was stunning.” Ibid, p.202-203

Most troubling to the Board was the fact that these NASA tendencies were not new but existed in full force at the time of both the Challenger and the Columbia Shuttle accidents.

    “The (Rogers) Commission found that NASA’s safety system had been ‘silent. (denoted by) a lack of problem reporting requirements, inadequate trend analysis, misrepresentation of criticality, and lack of involvement in critical discussions.

    By the eve of the Columbia accident, institutional practices that were in effect at the time of the Challenger accident – such as inadequate concern over deviations from expected performance, a silent safety program, and schedule pressure – had returned to NASA.” Ibid, p.100-101

This “echo” between the events eighteen years ago and the present made the loss of Columbia and its explanation all the more confounding, because so many who reviewed the agency, its practices, and its culture had sounded an alarm. The fact that these NASA behaviors and beliefs were so enduring that they persisted beyond the stunning loss of the Challenger and her crew was all the more startling to the Columbia Board. So startling, that the Board found it necessary to offer a blunt and chilling assessment:

    “If these persistent, systemic flaws are not resolved, the scene is set for another accident.” Ibid, p.195

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board also found that it was not only NASA that was at fault for the loss of Columbia. Rather, the Board found that the weaknesses at NASA were just as much a result of the Nation’s neglect of its human space flight program.

    “Post-Challenger policy decisions made by the White House, Congress, and NASA leadership resulted in the agency reproducing many of the failings identified by the Rogers Commission. Policy constraints affected the Shuttle Program’s organization culture, its structure, and the structure of its safety system.” Ibid, p.197

The impact of this neglect extended beyond NASA’s organizational responses, encompassing broad aspects of planning for NASA’s future missions and the development of its technology.

    “There (has been a) lack, over the past three decades, of any national mandate providing NASA a compelling mission requiring human presence in space.(and a) lack of sustained government commitment over the past decade to improving U.S. access to space by developing a second-generation space transportation system.” Ibid, p. 209

    “It is the view of the Board that previous attempts to develop a replacement vehicle for the aging Shuttle represent a failure of national leadership.” Ibid, p.211

The bill I am introducing today establishes a permanent National Space Commission to oversee the nation’s current and future development and use of space. The Commission is established with 12 members, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Commission members will be leaders chosen from industry, academia, and other professions who have a profound expertise in space flight and safety and have worn the mantle of responsibility and challenge in the development and use of space.

The Commission will be independent of NASA and is authorized to hire a staff to develop the engineering and technical expertise to carry out its work. It will begin its work looking at some of our most vexing current problems raised by the Columbia Board’s report and provide the necessary oversight to ensure that the Board’s recommendations are implemented in the following areas: (1) the return-to-flight of the Space Shuttle and return to assembling the International Space Station, (2) replacement of the Space Shuttle, and (3) changes to the culture of NASA. We specify a number of detailed questions, criteria, and concerns that the Commission should take up in laying out a near-term path forward for NASA’s Human Space Flight program. In making its recommendations, the Commission is directed to consider the safety and dignity of human life as its highest priority.

This specific aspect of the bill is a special clause in my mind, one that is not subject to redaction – the United States space flight program must, above all, be an American approach to the future of space flight and, as such, must place the dignity and preservation of human life above all other considerations. This assertion is not meant as an accusation or indictment of NASA ñ Admiral Gehman made it clear that the fault for the loss of Columbia rests with us all, impressed as we all were with space flight and our accomplishments, and naÔve about its risks and challenges.

    “If Shuttle operations came to be viewed as routine, it was, at least in part, thanks to the skill and dedication of those involved in the program. They have made it look easy, though in fact it never was. The Board urges NASA leadership, the architects of U.S. space policy, and the American people to adopt a realistic understanding of the risks and rewards of venturing into space.” Ibid, p.208

For never again should we have to read in a formal accident report of the United States space program:

    “Managers failed to fulfill the implicit contract to do whatever is possible to ensure the safety of the crew.” Ibid, p.170

Never again.

In each of these assessments of current issues in NASA’s Human Space Flight Program, we intend the Commission to provide the President, the Congress, and NASA its informed judgment and advice, so that we can expeditiously return the program to a condition of stability and adopt a NASA culture of safety as soon as possible.
The second aspect of the bill is to set a long-range view of our Nation’s participation in and development of space.

Concurrent with the work on current issues at NASA, but due by late 2005, are two ground-breaking studies. These studies are intended to go beyond defining a destination for humans in space and to address broader questions about the goals and methods we use, with a specific concern for public and private utilization and investment in space. Though we have learned that the economics of space flight should never again take precedence over its safety, we also know that, in the past, its cost has driven us down pathways that have not resulted in success.

    “In all three (Shuttle replacement) projects – National Aerospace Plane, X-33, and X-34 – national leaders had set ambitious goals in response to NASA’s ambitious proposals. The programs relied on the invention of revolutionary technology, had run into major technical problems, and had been denied the funds need to overcome these problems ñ assuming they could be solved. NASA had spent nearly 15 years and several billion dollars, and yet had made no meaningful progress toward a Space Shuttle replacement.” Ibid, p.111

    “Continued U.S. leadership in space is an important national objective. That leadership depends on a willingness to pay the costs of achieving it.” Ibid, p.211

First, the Commission is chartered to provide a sweeping assessment of the future of space. Included in that assessment is a review of United States capabilities, goals, and uses for space, including the state of our Nation’s investment in launch capabilities, how space could benefit State and local governments and regions, and the role of non-governmental, private organizations in the promotion of our space endeavors. The review will also take up the difficult issues related to public and private investment: the role of private institutions in the development and use of space and the business conditions they must meet; how Federal Government programs in space science, exploration, national security, and public safety support or limit the commercial development of space; and how space contributes to the terrestrial economy of the United States.

Given the high cost of space, and the even higher costs of space that the Nation is certain to experience in the near and long-term future, resolution of these questions of private versus public participation and promotion of the development of space is a necessary part of the examination of possible technological and economic futures for the space sector of the economy.

Second, and most importantly, the National Space Commission Act is directed to perform a comprehensive assessment and inventorying of the Nation’s programs and practices related to the conduct and safety of space flight. This study will assess the state of the Nation’s acceptance, approval, and commercial licensing practices as they relate to the conduct of civil, commercial, and military space flight and explore how space launch and high-risk space operations are conducted across each of these sectors.

This study is intended to result in a series of recommendations about the future management of space launch and high-risk orbital and sub-orbital space operations in order to achieve the highest level of safety and management of these risks. To those who question the importance of establishing an authority independent of NASA to assess these provisions, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board stated the case most convincingly:

    “(NASA) cultural norms tend to be fairly resilient. The norms bounce back into shape after being stretched or bent. Beliefs held in common throughout the organization resist alteration.” Ibid, p. 101

    “Within NASA, the cultural impediments to safe and effective Shuttle operations are real and substantial. Leadership will have to rid the system of practices and patterns that have been validated simply because they have been around so long. These recommendations will be difficult to initiate, and they will encounter some degree of institutional resistance.” Ibid, p.209

    “NASA’s blind spot is it believes it has a strong safety culture. Twice in NASA history, the agency embarked on a slippery slope that resulted in catastrophe. A safety team must have equal and independent representation so that managers are not again lulled into complacency by shifting definitions of risk.” Ibid, p.202-203

    “Since NASA is an independent agency answerable only to the White House and Congress, the ultimate responsibility for enforcement of the recommended corrective actions must reside with those governmental authorities.” Ibid, p.209

The National Space Commission is established on a permanent basis to maintain oversight of the implementation of space flight across all sectors of industry and Government and vigilance in the management of safety in all United States high-risk space operations.

Let me reiterate. Merely announcing a bold new plan to travel to the Earth’s Moon or to Mars is not sufficient. If the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia merely results in that proposal, we will have failed the memory of our brave astronauts who lost their lives aboard both Challenger and Columbia. And we will have failed our own future.

Unfortunately, our current charge is more difficult. We must challenge our assumptions, question our decisions and designs, revisit our approaches, and rethink our Nation’s ambitions and goals for space. We must submit ourselves to the discipline to begin anew. The future of space and our Nation’s reputation that we carry into history rests in the balance.

SpaceRef staff editor.