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Research Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith's Statement on NASA's Response to the Columbia Report

Press Release From: Rep. Nick Smith
Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2003

I'd like to thank Chairman Boehlert and Ranking Member Hall for holding this hearing today to discuss NASA's reaction to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report.

In the wake of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia there are a number of questions that need to be answered.  The CAIB has done an admirable job of investigating the accident, pinpointing the direct cause, and identifying related factors, such as the "NASA culture," that contributed to the tragedy.  There are reasonable arguments why manned space flight should be put on hold.  On this Committee and as a nation, I think we need to have an honest, open discussion about whether or not the shuttle program is viable and should be continued and whether there should be a greater shift to unmanned flight in terms of science and space exploration.  I am concerned that NASA's "Return to Flight" plan, which sets March 11, 2004, as a goal for the next shuttle launch, is an attempt to rush back to manned space flight, ignoring this important policy issue.

By setting the goal of a March launch date, it almost feels like back to business as usual for NASA.  The CAIB report cited unreasonable expectations for the shuttle program, both by Congress and NASA, as one of the factors that detracted from attention to safety concerns.  Last week, Admiral Gehman told the Committee that NASA has a history of promising more than they can deliver in order to get a program approved.  He also said that lower level officials felt pressured to meet deadlines at the expense of safety. 

Administrator O'Keefe, you have said that the shuttle will not return to flight until it is "fit to fly," but with the target date for the next launch six months away I am concerned that we will end up not dealing with all past mistakes.  A successful mission would merely give us a false sense of confidence in the shuttle and create inertia against a thorough re-evaluation of the space program that includes a shift to unmanned flight.

The American people deserve a space program that focuses on producing quality and efficient scientific research.  The conversation that needs to be taking place right now is whether or not continuing the shuttle program advances this goal.  Instead, Mr. O'Keefe, you seem to be debating that the same priority for manned flight is a forgone conclusion and how quickly we can resume sending astronauts into space.  I look forward to working with my colleagues and Administrator O'Keefe to work on ways to create a safer, more effective research-oriented space program. 

I'd like to thank Chairman Boehlert and Ranking Member Hall for holding this hearing today to discuss NASA's reaction to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report.

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