WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon wants to ensure the safety of future human space flights by establishing an independent commission whose mission will be to thoroughly examine any future accidents.
Gordon authored the Human Space Flight Independent Investigation Commission Act based on President Reagan's commission that was formed to investigate the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. Gordon's bill was approved today (Wednesday, October 8) by the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
"This is a lesson-learned bill," said Gordon, the ranking member of the subcommittee. "It is not a reflection on the Columbia investigation."
Gordon's legislation authorizes a commission appointed by the president to study a shuttle or space-station accident, or a future accident involving a government-sponsored, manned space vehicle.
The congressman is satisfied with the job retired Navy Admiral Harold Gehman did with the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, but he is not satisfied with the way the panel was established.
In the early stages of the accident investigation, NASA revised the Gehman board's charter three times before finally giving the board a measure of independence. Still, the board retained one NASA official and relied on NASA staff, which carried the possibility of undermining the credibility of its investigation.
"The board's charter just didn't pass the smell test," Gordon explained. "Right from the get-go the board was saddled with looking like just another NASA panel that would refuse to place blame where blame should be placed.
"NASA cannot investigate itself and expect the public to wholeheartedly accept its findings."
Gordon's bill, H.R. 2450, 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.
Under provisions of the bill, the president, to the extent possible, would have to appoint some members with space-flight and accident-investigation experience, but otherwise could draw members from a diversity of backgrounds.
To assure separation from the agency, NASA personnel would be prohibited from serving on the commission, or indirectly through a staff role. The commission would have the power to subpoena witnesses and would report its findings simultaneously to the president, Congress and the public.
"My purpose for crafting this bill is to make sure future investigations are free from any perception that the space agency is hiding something," Gordon explained.
"Our space program is truly a national undertaking and relies on support from the public, and I want America's citizens to have complete trust in and support for our space program. Anything less is unacceptable," he added.