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Gordon Bill Assures Independence Of Future Space Accident Investigations

Press Release From: Rep. Bart Gordon
Posted: Monday, June 16, 2003

WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon has introduced legislation that will assure future human space flight accident investigations are truly independent.

The Human Space Flight Independent Investigation Commission Act authorizes a commission appointed by the president to study a shuttle or space station accident. The bill does not affect the current investigation by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, but would apply to a future loss of a crewed space vehicle.

"This is a lesson-learned bill and not a reflection on Admiral Gehman's handling of the Columbia investigation," Gordon stressed.

In the early stages of the accident investigation, the NASA administrator revised the Gehman board's charter three times before he finally gave the board a measure of independence, Gordon noted. Even then, the board retains one NASA official and relies on NASA staff, which could undermine the credibility of its final report.

"The charter just doesn't pass the smell test," Gordon warned officials with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in a hearing earlier this year.

"The shame is all the NASA administrator had to do to get it right the first time was follow the successful model of the presidential commission that investigated the 1986 Challenger accident," he said. "I still don't understand why NASA believes it can adequately investigate itself and produce a report the public will accept."

Gordon pressed NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to seek an independent presidentially appointed commission during hearings and in letters where he pointed out the various problems of having a board staffed by and answerable to NASA personnel when investigating a major tragedy at the space agency.

O'Keefe responded by modifying the board's charter, but refused to relinquish the investigation to a truly independent panel as was done in the Challenger accident.

The bill, H.R. 2450, introduced by Gordon on Thursday (June 12) draws on the Challenger model by requiring a 15-member commission, with 14 members appointed by the president. The 15th member would be the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. The president, to the extent possible, would have to appoint some members with space flight and accident investigation experience, but otherwise can draw board members from a diversity of backgrounds.

To assure separation from the agency, no NASA personnel would be permitted to serve on the board or serve in a staff role. The board would have the power to subpoena witnesses and would report its findings simultaneously to the president, Congress and the public.

Legislation is the last thing he wanted, Gordon continued, noting that he hopes another commission is never needed. However, the intransigence of NASA to calls from both parties in Congress, the press and the public for an independent board finally convinced him to introduce the legislation.

"My purpose for crafting this bill is to make sure future investigations are free from any perception that the agency is hiding something," Gordon explained. "I want the public to have complete trust and support for our space program. Anything less is unacceptable."

Gordon is the senior Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. He was one of the first members of Congress to call for an independent commission to investigate the Columbia accident.

"None of us wants to see another shuttle lost, but we have to face the fact that space exploration is inherently risky and make responsible preparations for that possibility. Leaving investigations up to ad hoc procedures, internal agency rules and self-appointed boards will eventually break the vital public trust that this national undertaking relies on," he warned.

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