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Rep. Hall Introduces Legislation on Oversight of Shuttle Safety

Press Release From: Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Democratic Caucus
Posted: Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Congressman Ralph M. Hall (D-TX) today introduced the "Space Shuttle Independent Oversight Act of 2003", legislation that authorizes the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering to establish an independent committee to oversee NASA's implementation of the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.  Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, and Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, joined Mr. Hall as original co-sponsors.

A copy of Mr. Hall's introductory statement in the House of Representatives follows.  The text of the bill can be obtained at http://www.house.gov/science_democrats/archive/shuttle_oversight.pdf.

Extension of Remarks to Accompany Introduction of the "Space Shuttle Independent Oversight Act of 2003"

Hon. Ralph M. Hall

October 1, 2003

Mr. Speaker, today I am introducing the "Space Shuttle Independent Oversight Act of 2003", legislation that will help the Space Shuttle fly more safely once it resumes its operations.

As the Congress reviews the implications of the Columbia Shuttle accident for NASA's Space Shuttle program, we acknowledge the excellent report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), chaired by Admiral Hal Gehman.  Released six weeks ago, the CAIB report clearly laid out what NASA needs to do before the Space Shuttle can be safety returned to flight, probably within the next year.  Equally importantly, the report contains many recommendations and observations on what NASA should do to keep the Shuttle flying safely over the remainder of its operational lifetime, which may extend another decade or more.

NASA has already put in place an external task force, co-chaired by Tom Stafford and Dick Covey, to oversee its implementation of the CAIB's "return-to-flight" recommendations - those recommendations that must be met before the next Shuttle launch.  Over the coming months, the Congress will be monitoring the task force's assessment of NASA's plans closely to assure ourselves and the American public that the next flight is as safe as is humanly possible. 

However, a long-term oversight problem remains.  The Stafford-Covey task force will conclude its activities when the Shuttle resumes flying, or even earlier.  Admiral Gehman has repeatedly registered his concern that once the Shuttle is flying again, there may be no effective oversight mechanism to ensure that NASA follows through on the long-term CAIB recommendations - those designed to keep the Shuttle flying safely over the next decade.  I share his concern.

My bill will establish an external, independent, and technically competent committee to monitor NASA's implementation of the CAIB's recommendations.  The committee will be selected and run by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering and will provide its timely assessments to both the Congress and NASA.  Following the 1986 loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the National Academies provided a similar function in overseeing the re-design of the Shuttle's solid rocket motors (SRM), as well as reviewing other post-Challenger Shuttle modifications.  History shows that the National Academies served a vital role in providing high-quality, independent advice and assessments to NASA during that difficult time.  They were tough - rejecting several re-designs and test plans before approving the final design - but they were fair, and there have been no problems with the SRMs since Challenger.

Why can't the Congressionally established Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) monitor the long-term CAIB recommendations?  Because a week ago - on September 22 - all nine ASAP members tendered their resignation, a distress signal that we in Congress should be taking very seriously.  In interviews with the press, ASAP members have noted both their lack of independence from NASA and the discouraging fact that NASA has regularly dismissed the ASAP's safety recommendations.  The oversight Committees, including the Science Committee, on which I serve as Ranking Member, need to get to the bottom of the ASAP situation.  Perhaps the ASAP will need to be re-constituted legislatively to provide it with greater independence and resources. 

At the same time, however, we need to establish a dedicated group that can effectively oversee NASA's implementation of the CAIB's long-term recommendations.  I recognize that there may be many ways to reach this goal, and I call on the leaders of the relevant oversight Committees to convene hearings promptly to examine the various options.  The strengths of my legislation are that it gives the Shuttle oversight group complete independence and it follows a model that has been proven to work effectively in the past.  It also ties the oversight body to standing institutions - the National Academies - that can provide it with the support and stability it needs for the long run.   

I offer this legislation with the goal of helping the NASA Administrator to promote safety in the human space flight program.  I urge my colleagues to support the legislation and to speed its enactment into law.

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