An Open Letter to Congress Regarding the Columbia Accident


This coming Wednesday, 12 February 2003, a rare joint House-Senate hearing will be held on Capitol Hill. The topic: The Columbia accident – and NASA's future. The setting: the Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office building. In case you are not familiar with this room, let me note some of the rather public investigative events that have taken place in this room: Watergate, Iran Contra, Teapot Dome, and, eerily, the Titanic disaster.

Wednesday's hearing will be held exactly 11 days and 30 minutes after Columbia was destroyed - a week after memorial services began. With the exception of Ilan Ramon, the remains of the crew of Columbia will not have been buried. None the less, Congress seems to see the need to jump onto this issue as soon as their calendar will permit.

Given the nature of what happened last week, it is not at all surprising that Congress would like to have NASA give them some answers. What is of concern to me is how soon such answers are being sought.

It is human nature to become complacent about things - even when it comes to the most exciting and profound activities we can imagine. It is also very human to only come to appreciate something once it is gone – or pay long overdue attention to something oft neglected when a horrible tragedy rips it away from us. Such was the case on September 11, 2001. Such was again the case on February 1, 2003.

Given the enormity of the loss it is understandable that we pause for a moment to reassess where we have been and where we are going - if for no other reason than to reassure ourselves that this cause is worthy of the resources we dedicate to it - as well as the lives people are willing to sacrifice in its pursuit. The least we can do is devote the time in the coming months to make things right and then to move on.

Alas, the natural thing to do in situations connected with a national tragedy is to find someone to blame. Such is what passes for blood sport here in Washington. Nothing is sacrosanct.

Already signs are emerging that some of the participants in Wednesday's hearings would rather stoop to partisan stunts than a search for facts. The latest seems to be quibbling over the minutiae of how the investigative panel reports its results.

One look at the data deluge that has already come out of NASA several times a day - an output that began within only hours of the crash, ought to serve as blunt evidence that NASA has learned the lesson from Challenger. In this time of 24/7 news coverage and ubiquitous Internet capabilities, it is unlikely that any smoking gun, should one be uncovered, is going to remain hidden for very long.

Other politicians are formulating lines of questioning which seek to look back in time to see who should have done what, and when, and if past funding decisions can somehow be blamed for Columbia's demise.

Why stop there?

We could certainly look at what NASA sent to the White House, OMB in particular - and what they got back in response. Did NASA ask for more money to fix things? Did OMB say no? We could look at what the White House sent to Congress and what Congress did in return. We could look at the Congressional earmarking (aka “pork”) that sapped NASA's buying power year after year.

Finally, we could look at what budgets were passed and who voted for or against them. Lest we not forget, we could even look at which contractors contributed money to which influential members of Congress and come up with conclusions as to their motives.

We could look at a lot of things - indeed, why not go back to the Nixon Administration and subpoena anyone still alive to come forth and explain why a partially reusable system was selected over a fully reusable one NASA had presented.

I am not suggesting that we not look for the roots of this tragedy. Far from it. We'd all be foolish not to look back at the road that brought us to the events of February 1st and try to identify what needs to be fixed. We'd also be foolish if we did not look at the long road before us, and forge ahead armed with the knowledge gained from this tragedy.

The road ahead is not one paved only with technical, managerial, and monetary fixes. Rather, it is one that must be also built upon a foundation that serves to sustain interest in the exploration of space - not just for the sake of maintaining a healthy R&D program, but also to best serve the citizens for whom these efforts are undertaken.

Many things were learned after Challenger - and NASA is applying many of those lessons now. There is, however, one lesson we apparently did not learn from Challenger - how to sustain interest in the excitement and promise of space exploration when things become routine once again. How many people could name the crew aboard Columbia from memory when it began its mission? I confess that I couldn't.

If the net result of Wednesday's joint hearing is political bickering, partisan grandstanding, finger pointing, and delaying tactics we will all have done the greatest collective misdeed to Columbia's crew we could possibly imagine. We will have dishonored their sacrifice - as well as those made by crews of previous space missions. Shame on all of us if that is what happens.

However, if we take this sad occasion to identify the cause of this accident, enable it to be fixed, and then move on, we honor their sacrifice by making America's space program better than it was before - empowered with a recommitment to the cause of space exploration.

It is my fervent hope that the tone and tenor of these hearings will be more along the lines of another event held in this room - the announcement of candidacy by John F. Kennedy, the man whose vision was soon translated into an effort which caused humans to walk on the face of another world.

We need to recover from this setback and move onward - and outward. We owe it to the crew of Columbia - and those of Challenger, Apollo 1, Soyuz 11, Soyuz 1, and others who have given their lives, to do nothing less.

We need to get it right this time.

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