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House Science Committee Chair Boehlert Addresses Space Transportation Association

Press Release From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2003

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert today delivered the following speech to the Space Transportation Association:

"It's a pleasure to be with you this morning. I don't think I'm going to say anything this morning that should surprise anybody in this room - at least, I hope I don't surprise anybody. Pretty much, all my current thoughts on space transportation policy are already in the public record - whether as letters, opening statements or speeches. And all of that is accessible on the Science Committee website.

"But I view this morning as a valuable and timely opportunity, nonetheless. I think it's very important that, as Congress finally prepares to leave town, I get a chance to exchange views with all of you in an open and informal forum. I know that many of you talk to my staff all the time, but this is a chance for me to hear from you and respond directly.

"That's especially timely because the Science Committee will be picking up next year right where we're leaving off. Among our tasks right out of the box in January will be completing work on a Commercial Space bill, perhaps bringing the NASA workforce bill to the House floor, and, of course, continuing our hearings on how to follow up on the Columbia accident, and - most arduous of all - beginning work on an overdue NASA reauthorization bill with an eye toward getting it signed before the 108th Congress adjourns. So we've got our work cut out for us.

"Now, that schedule prompts an obvious question: what specifically are you going to do in each of those areas? And I have a simple answer: we don't know yet.

"And the reason we don't know is also pretty obvious - all these areas are in flux. But what I can do is tell you what our questions and concerns are, and that may give you some sense of what lies ahead.

"Let me start with the Commercial Space bill (H.R. 3245), which Chairman Rohrabacher has introduced and marked up. I'm glad that Dana never lets us forget the private sector's potential role in exploring and exploiting space, and we do need to establish a clear and effective regulatory regime for human commercial space flight.

"What we've learned in working on this bill is just how tricky that can be. We're still exploring who should regulate such activity, what aspects of it should be regulated, what legal issues regulation might solve or create, and whether indemnification should be part of the regime, among other questions. We want to come up with a regime that encourages experimentation, but that protects third parties and taxpayers.

"At the same time, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is figuring out how it would like to proceed, and while we won't wait for the FAA, we need to take their thinking into account. So, working closely with Chairman Rohrabacher, we're sorting through the issues and hope to have a manager's amendment by the end of January.

"We will not, of course, be able to reach any kind of closure on issues related to NASA by the end of January. "The Committee continues to closely monitor the Space Shuttle's return to flight. I think the Shuttle needs to lift off as soon as is safely possible, but I'm skeptical that that can actually happen by September.

"I don't have a specific date in mind - that's obviously beyond my level of expertise. But our Committee will be taking a close look to make sure that all the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) recommendations have been carried out before another launch occurs. I think Administrator O'Keefe is to be congratulated for appointing the Stafford-Covey Task Force, and we have been, and will continue to be in close contact with the Task Force as it carries out its work.

"We will be providing especially rigorous oversight on NASA's reorganization plans. Administrator O'Keefe has committed NASA to implementing reorganization before return to flight - a more ambitious schedule than recommended by the CAIB, and that's all to the good.

"But at this point, I can only repeat what I said at our October 29 hearing on reorganization: 'I have complete confidence that Administrator O'Keefe has taken the CAIB recommendations to heart. But that said, I must note that I believe the initial organization ideas being circulated by NASA fall significantly short of the mark.'

"We need to see much more evidence that NASA is consulting with others and is willing to think afresh. And that has to be true throughout the organization. NASA's record of accomplishing that in the human space flight program is not good, and we are not willing to see reorganization fail on our watch.

"There are some positive signs. The new National Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) seems to be a step in the right direction, although it's hard to discern that from some of the documents describing the Center.

"But we need to see how the NESC actually functions and how it will fit in with the other changes in NASA called for in the CAIB report.

"The way NASA handled recent objections to launching a crew to the Space Station is also in some ways a good sign. Dissent was encouraged and remedial steps were put in place. And we should all be lauding the dissenters. But as Admiral Gehman pointed out at our October 29 hearing, no systemic changes have yet been put in place to ensure that same result will occur when the Columbia accident is no longer so fresh in our minds. And indeed, even in this case, NASA did not entirely put aside its old ways -failing, for example, to probe how widespread the concerns the dissenters expressed were and not flagging the issues for the Congress or even for the Administrator.

I'm also concerned that we don't have all the information we need from NASA on what challenges the Space Station will face in the months ahead. We've been waiting for months, for example, for clear information on how NASA plans to keep the Station crewed and supplied after March (the original target for returning to flight), and especially on what problems may occur if the Shuttle can't launch in September. Given past concerns about schedule pressure, the Committee plans to be very active in getting answers to these questions.

"But from a Congressional point of view, figuring out what to do with the Shuttle program -- and even with NASA in general -- in the short run is easy. NASA itself has the hard tasks.

"That's not the case when it comes to the longer run, and the longer run starts in fiscal 2005. The status quo, as everyone realizes, is not sustainable. NASA needs a clear mission in human space flight and a program to go with it.

"And that mission can only be decided through a thorough, open and honest debate that involves the Administration, the entire Congress - not just a few folks interested in NASA - and the American people. That hasn't happened in 40 years, and it ain't easy.

"I don't have a particular "vision" I'm pushing at this point. I'm open to the idea of a Mars landing or of a lunar landing or a mission to an asteroid, which might be especially compelling, given that asteroids may present an eventual threat to our planet. But I do have some general principles that will guide my thinking as we all work to develop a new vision for NASA.

"First, I believe - as the Augustine Commission did - that space science and earth science programs should be the agency's highest priority. They have more scientific benefit, expand our horizons further (literally and figuratively), and accomplish more at less risk and less cost than do human space flight programs.

"Second, any vision has to come with an affordable price tag. Witnesses at our most recent Science Committee hearing on the future of human space flight estimated that we could accomplish significant new missions with a NASA budget that ramped up to about $20 billion and remained at that level. That's still a hefty increase - 33 percent - but it's probably in the upper range of what might be considered affordable.

"Third, if we're going to take on ambitious new human missions - as I think we should - then we can't indefinitely perpetuate the existing elements of the human space flight program.

"We need a date certain to stop flying the Space Shuttle and to decommission the International Space Station. Obviously, both will remain in use until the end of this decade and probably beyond. But while they're in use, we need to ensure that they are, to the greatest extent possible, contributing to our longer-range missions.

"Fourth, we shouldn't be committing to any new projects in human space flight until we have a better sense of what we're trying to accomplish, of how long the Shuttle and Station will be in use, and of how much we're willing to spend over the long haul. That's why Mr. Hall and I have called on NASA not to move ahead yet with a Request for Proposals for the Orbital Space Plane.

"We're not, by the way, calling for a complete halt to the program or even for reducing the fiscal 2004 request, but we don't want to start taking steps that seem irrevocable. It's wrong to expect Congress to sign on to soliciting or awarding a contract for OSP when no one can tell us how the OSP fits into the future of NASA, or remotely how much the project will cost. You'd think Congress had learned that lesson by now.

"And fifth, we need a full, open and honest debate on how to proceed. That often hasn't been the case in the past. NASA needs to be far more accurate in describing the capabilities, risks and costs of its projects and more honest about when it just doesn't know.

"I hope we can have that kind of debate, and we'll see where it leads us. The Administration is now devoting more time to thinking about NASA than any Administration has in a long time. Through our reauthorization bill, we will be trying to get Congress to do the same.

"And I think the excellent working relationships we have at the Member and staff level with Ralph Hall and Jim Walsh and John McCain will help ensure we have a coherent and serious debate.

"If we succeed, we will make tough choices that will put NASA - and the nation - on a path that will be challenging, exciting and probing, and at the same time realistic, sustainable and productive.

"I look forward to working with all of you to accomplish that. Thank you."

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