Daily Breeze

February 07, 2003

Rohrabacher to stay on space panel during probe

By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders have decided to allow Rep. Dana Rohrabacher to continue heading a space and aeronautics subcommittee, ensuring that he will have a prominent role in Congress’ response to the shuttle Columbia disaster.

The House Science Committee, which includes the space panel, is set to begin hearings into the tragedy next week.

Under House rules that limit the terms of subcommittee chairmen to six years, Rohrabacher — who represents the Palos Verdes Peninsula and parts of the Harbor Area — would normally have had to give up the post this year.

Rohrabacher had sought an extension from the House Republican Steering Committee before last weekend’s breakup of the Columbia. The committee granted the two-year extension late Wednesday. The House Science Committee is headed by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y. It led the congressional probe of the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

The House committee is scheduled to hold a joint hearing Wednesday with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the possible causes of the Columbia accident.

The committees also will explore the implications for the future of space exploration.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe will testify.

The hearing is expected to be the start of a lengthy inquiry by the committees.

“We’ll be focusing on all the issues,” Rohrabacher said.

“We have to talk to everybody and get the experts in to give us their impressions. I’m not an engineer, and I’m not a scientist. I want to make sure there is no one whose expertise is being overlooked in this.”

Rohrabacher has been a longtime advocate of developing a new generation of space vehicles. He had expressed concern about the aging of the shuttle fleet in the past.

“We will be looking at a general policy having to do with the budget, which is why are we flying 20-year-old pieces of equipment in space when doing it with even new equipment is a risky venture,” he said.

However, Rohrabacher said he did not believe NASA budget constraints caused Columbia’s demise.

“NASA had a lot of money to spend and was always told we’d rather have them do fewer things” and make safety a priority.

Boeing, whose space division is based in Rohrabacher’s district, is part of an industry consortium that is NASA’s prime contractor for the space shuttle program.

The company, along with Century City-based Northrop Grumman, also has had a hand in examining a new type of spacecraft.

Rohrabacher’s subcommittee post also gives him influence on other issues of concern to South Bay aerospace companies, including satellite technology.