Opening Statement by Rep. Ralph Hall at Columbia Accident Investigation Hearing

Press Release From: Rep. Hall
Posted: Thursday, September 4, 2003

Good morning. I'd like to welcome Admiral Gehman and his colleagues from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to today's hearing. The nation owes a debt of gratitude to all of the Board members and staff for your dedicated service.

When you began your work seven months ago, it was not at all clear that we would ever unravel the physical cause of the accident . It is a tribute to your efforts that we can now be highly confident that a foam strike did in fact lead to the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew.

At the same time, your report makes a persuasive case that other factors made an equal contribution to the Shuttle accident. It is painful reading, because the Board essentially has concluded that NASA never really learned the lessons of the Space Shuttle Challenger accident more than 17 years ago. Indeed the CAIB report makes it clear that a series of reviews over the years since Challenger had uncovered the same sorts of problems that you found during your investigation. This Committee needs to get your best assessment of why those problems have continued to occur, and what will be required to keep them from causing another accident. Your answers will help me shape legislation that I am developing to provide for continued oversight of the implementation of the Gehman recommendations.

I know that there are some who want to know who was at fault for the Columbia accident. That is understandable. However, your report makes it clear that the conditions that ultimately led to the accident were not just the result of a few individuals' actions. I personally am not as interested in assigning blame as I am in working to fix the problems identified by your investigation. We are going to need your help in determining the best way to proceed from here on out.

In that regard, I am very interested in your recommendations for returning the Shuttle fleet to flight. This Committee needs to know why you included the items you did, and equally importantly, why some potential tasks were not included in your recommendations.

Mr. Chairman, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board has performed an important service. However, it is now up to Congress—in coordination with the White House—to consider issues that are beyond the Board's charter. Namely, we need to decide on some concrete goals for the human space flight program and be willing to commit the resources necessary to meet those goals.

There will be those who say that we should walk away from human space flight as a result of this accident. I disagree. The question is not whether we should have a human space flight program—the real is question is how to make that program as safe and productive as possible. My view is that we should complete the International Space Station as originally planned so that it can be a productive research facility. We need to fix the Shuttle, and as part of that effort take a serious look at how best to protect the crews that will be flying the Shuttle for the next 10 to 20 years. Finally, we need to set some concrete goals for human exploration beyond the Space Station. Establishment of human exploration goals would ensure that we make the appropriate investments in our space program, would revitalize the NASA workforce, and would serve as a source of inspiration for both the NASA workforce and the American public.

With respect to crew safety, I would note that just a month ago, the House of Representatives unanimously approved my amendment providing adequate funds for NASA to at least begin assessing Space Shuttle crew rescues options seriously. If we lose another Shuttle and its crew, the impact on the space flight program will be disastrous. We are going to continue to rely on the Shuttle for many years to service the Space Station, and we need to do everything possible to ensure that if the Shuttle comes under threat in the future, the crew is given every possible opportunity to survive.

Mr. Chairman, I will close by again expressing my appreciation for the Board's efforts.

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