Sen. McCain's comments on S. 2541 NASA Reauthorization Act

Editor's note: the following comments were made by Sen. John McCain with regard to S. 2541 NASA Reauthorization Act

June 17, 2004
S. 2541 NASA Reauthorization Act
page: s7010

S. 2541. A bill to reauthorize and restructure the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Mr. McCAIN: Mr. President, I am pleased to be joined today by Senators Brownback, Hutchison, and Allen in introducing legislation to re-authorize the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This legislation marks the beginning of a new age of exploration, and the extension of humanity's quest for knowledge to a manned mission to Mars.

NASA is currently responsible for a number of programs that create greater knowledge about the Earth and the universe around us. As we speak today, the two robots, Spirit and Opportunity, are exploring craters on Mars in search of ancient lake beds. The Hubble telescope continues to show us new discoveries about the universe. NASA satellites also help us to develop a better scientific understanding of the Earth's atmosphere and its response to natural and human-induced changes. NASA is in the process of developing airplanes with morphing wings that will change shape during flight.

Despite all of these wondrous achievements, NASA is an agency in search of a new mission. For many Americans, the Apollo landings remain a moment of inspiration, but also a fading memory of the past. Many space enthusiasts have complained that the manned space program has been stuck in low Earth orbit and harnessed to a costly space station and aging Space Shuttle infrastructure. Just last year, we again witnessed the inherent danger in manned spaceflight, and some questioned the need for such a risky and expensive program.

To his credit, President Bush announced on the day of the Columbia tragedy that ``our journey into space will go on.'' In January, the President offered a bold new space vision and made a firm commitment to return the Space Shuttle to flight, finish construction of the International Space Station, and return astronauts to the Moon in preparation for a manned mission to Mars. This bill would authorize these activities consistent with the President's overall requested budget amounts, and set the nation firmly on a course for manned exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

However, we also have learned from the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, NASA's recent history of managing projects, such as the X-33 and X-34, has been full of disappointment and failure. Many Members have seen the wisdom of President Reagan's adage to ``trust, but verify,'' when analyzing NASA's budget numbers. With these lessons in mind, the bill contains a number of provisions to ensure that NASA stays on track.

The bill would require the submission of a baseline technical requirements document and life cycle cost estimate, so that Congress can find out exactly what is required to implement the President's vision and begin to determine its cost. The bill also would require an industrial assessment of the private sector's ability to support manned missions to the Moon and Mars, and a commercialization plan to identify opportunities for the private sector to participate in future missions. Most importantly, the bill would require quarterly life cycle reports on major systems of the new initiative, and include cost-control measures when the cost overruns of these systems exceed 15 percent and 25 percent over the total life cycle cost of the system.

The bill also would codify many of the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). Admiral Gehman and the other board members did an admirable job in thoroughly investigating the causes of this tragic accident. The bill would establish a lessons- learned and best practices program to ensure that NASA does not repeat the mistakes of the past. In addition, the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance is given independent funding and direct line authority over the entire Space Shuttle Safety organization. An Independent Technical Engineering Authority is established within NASA with its own budgetary line to maintain technical standards, be the sole waiver-granting authority for technical standards, and perform other tasks. The bill also would ensure that the Independent Technical Engineering Authority would recertify the Space Shuttle orbiters for operation prior to any operations beyond 2010. The bill would include an assessment of NASA's culture and organization, and an action plan to fix the cultural and organizational problems that the CAIB identified as a major cause of the accident. The men and women of the Columbia gave their lives to further America's knowledge of the Earth and the stars, and we should honor their memory by ensuring that such an accident never occurs again.

In addition, the bill would address the problems concerning the Hubble Space Telescope. As my colleagues know, NASA has indicated that it cannot use the Space Shuttle for another human mission to service this national treasure. Both NASA and the National Academy of Sciences are reviewing options for using robots and other means to save the telescope. Sixty days after the National Academy releases its report, the Administrator would be directed to report to Congress on the future servicing options for Hubble and how much it will cost.

I realize that concerns have been raised regarding some of the cuts that NASA is proposing to pay for the President's exploration vision. In order to pay for this new program, we must realize that there is limited funding and that NASA funding has to be re-allocated. However, this bill should not be construed as supporting each and every proposed reduction. Instead, the bill simply would authorize the funding levels buy the major budget accounts.

Curiosity and a drive to explore have always been quintessential American traits. This has been most evident in the space program, which continues to show great advances in human knowledge. However, we are fully aware of the inherent risks and costs of space exploration, and the need to mitigate them wherever possible. Based on this knowledge, let us now embark upon this great journey into the stars to find whatever may await us.

I urge my colleagues to support this legislation, and look forward to working with them to ensure passage of this bill this year.

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