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Statement of Senator Ernest F. Hollings - Hearing on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report

Press Release From: Sen. Hollings
Posted: Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Thank you Mr. Chairman. I would like to begin by thanking Admiral Gehman and his colleagues for an excellent report. When you first came before this committee in February, some members wondered whether your group had the wherewithal to be critical enough of NASA. You reassured us then and the product of your work is excellent. Now we must begin the process of understanding and implementing your recommendations.

Mr. O'Keefe, I am glad that you are here as well. You certainly inherited more than you bargained for when you joined NASA. You have made the commitment that NASA will follow these recommendations. I hope so. I don't know how you will accomplish that, and the Board appears to have that doubt, too. Many of us have a sense of deja vu. We tried to change NASA in 1986 and now we know it just got worse. We have a NASA Administrator who is saying all of the right things, but having been here before we wonder if NASA can really heal itself or if Congress needs to step in forcefully.

We have many decisions before us. First, we must ensure that we understand and have the proper insight into the return to flight process. What is the right thing to do and when should we do it? While NASA has appointed the Stafford-Covey team, I wonder whether this is enough. Perhaps we should have a Congressional Review Panel with experts appointed by the Congress to review this process.

These experts could also help us with our second task provide a comprehensive, long-term vision for the space program. Here we are 40 years after the birth of space flight, and we don't have a very good idea of what we're doing and why, and what we are doing we aren't doing all that well. NASA made its goal to complete and service a space station, but even that's changed over the years. Regardless of what you think of the Station and I'm one who doesn't think much of it the reality is that it's there and we need to service it. But it's time to think beyond Station. What's next for human spaceflight and what is a purpose to which we can all agree? Obviously, there aren't good answers to this question today.

Third, we need to figure out how to change NASA's culture. Admiral Gehman, your report was chilling on this point, and makes us wonder what on Earth we can do, particularly when the experts we relied on seemed to have failed us. The Rogers Commission that examined

MORE the Challenger accident recommended a strong, independent NASA safety organization, strong central control of the Shuttle Program, and broader participation by authorities who could ensure that safety was the highest priority. All that failed us, and NASA actively sought to unravel those changes. I understand your report argues that NASA was not just complacent and blind about safety, but was proactive about stopping safe, smart procedures on this mission and still thinks its safety culture is top-notch. I think you said their culture was in denial. My gosh, what are we to make of all this!

The CAIB has once again recommended an independent safety office, as well as independent technical requirements management so that schedule worries don't impact decisions about what is safe to fly. My concern is that we have been here before and that NASA has a terrible track record. I'm not sure that NASA can reform itself. We in the Congress may need to help them, whether its through new institutions or by changing the Program's responsibilities.

Finally, we'll have to figure out how to do all of this in an era of dwindling resources. It will take a lot of money to do this right. We need to weigh our options moving forward and make some hard choices. I look forward to working with you, Mr. Chairman, and the other members of the Committee to do just that.

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