In Wake of Shuttle Disaster, Members Urge Continued Support of Space Program

Posted February 3, 2003 at 1:42pm

While Congressional hearings into the cause of the space shuttle Columbia accident seem inevitable, Members representing key NASA centers want to focus on bolstering the space program.

“Expeditious and thorough investigations are necessary to find out what happened and get the problem fixed quickly so that the space shuttle can [launch] again,” said Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), who represents Cape Canaveral, part of the “space coast.”

“There’s a certain amount of pressure to get it fixed and up again to maintain the International Space Station,” he said Monday. “We can’t just stand down like we did after the Challenger [disaster].”

Upcoming missions for the three remaining space shuttles, Explorer, Atlantis and Discovery, have been postponed, but NASA has said the ISS crew has enough supplies to last through the summer. Additionally, they have a leftover Russian emergency vehicle they can use to return to Earth if necessary.

While leaders of House and Senate committees with oversight of NASA are scheduled to meet late Monday with NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, the agency head held a briefing for three lawmakers Saturday. Weldon was joined at the Kennedy Space Center that day by fellow “space coast” Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Though no hearings have yet been scheduled to investigate the disaster, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee already has a hearing on federal funding of aerospace research planned for Thursday afternoon. NASA Deputy Administrator Frederick Gregory is expected to testify. And O’Keefe is scheduled to appear before the committee next week.

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), whose district includes the Johnson Space Center in Houston, joined the chorus clamoring for hearings but said he will discourage his fellow Science Committee members from dismantling the manned space program.

“We must sell to the public and Congress that this is part of the process,” he said. “We must keep trying.”

Lampson said the value of the medical and technological advances society has reaped from manned trips into space is incalculable and must be kept in mind when weighing the benefits of manned trips versus robotic exploration.

Furthermore, he said, the carrot of space travel must exist if society wants its children to study math and engineering.

Weldon said he expects that Congress will hold initial hearings “within weeks.”

When it does, it must debate the merits of building an orbiter to replace Columbia, which disintegrated over Texas on Saturday as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, he said.

Perhaps NASA could better spend its budget upgrading the safety and reliability of its current fleet, Weldon added.

While some in the space program have discussed lofty objectives, such as sending astronauts to Mars, Lampson said he thinks NASA should set smaller, linear goals.

For example, the agency could send a crew just beyond the earth’s gravitational area, closer to the moon, then to the moon again, then to a halfway point to another body, and so on, he said.

As debate over how to proceed will continue in the coming weeks, Lampson said he could say one thing as he watched mourners stream past the Johnson Space Center’s gate, across from his district office: “Even setbacks will not dampen people’s feelings about space.”