Daily Breeze

August 27, 2003

Rohrabacher urges new space vehicle technology


WASHINGTON — A report on the Columbia space shuttle disaster illustrates the need to reduce NASA’s dependence on the aging shuttle fleet and accelerate development of a new generation of space vehicles, South Bay Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said Tuesday.

“We will be doing our best to minimize use of the shuttle,” said Rohrabacher, who chairs the House Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics.

“This is not a call to rapidly move back into bringing the shuttles back on line. It’s a call for minimizing our dependence on the shuttle.”

Talk by NASA officials of possibly launching a new shuttle mission by spring “demonstrates an attitude in NASA about the shuttle,” said Rohrabacher, a Republican who represents the Palos Verdes Peninsula and parts of the Harbor Area.

“There are people there who are just committed to keeping us dependent on the shuttle system for the next 30 years. And the shuttle is clearly more risky and more costly than what anybody thought,” he said.

In its report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that the shuttles are “not inherently unsafe.” But the board also said “it is in the nation’s best interest to replace the shuttle as soon as possible” because of aging technology and “risks inherent in the original design.”

Rohrabacher said he wasn’t certain whether NASA should undergo a wholesale reorganization. The report harshly criticized the space agency’s “organizational culture” and faulted its safety program.

Those issues will be explored in coming weeks by the Science Committee. Hearings will start Sept. 4 with an appearance by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., who headed the investigation board.

“For the next several months, we’re going to be studying this report, having witnesses and coming to the conclusion as to what structural changes are necessary,” Rohrabacher said.

“It’s clear that the report emphasizes that the direct cause of this catastrophe was both technical and organizational.”

An independent safety program for the shuttle “will probably be established,” he added.

The board’s report placed some blame on Congress and the White House for approving budgets for NASA that lost 13 percent of their purchasing power over the past decade.

Rohrabacher rejected that assessment.

“It’s not that we didn’t spend enough money on the shuttle program,” he said. “Spending more money often doesn’t change attitudes.”

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe will have the final word on the timing of the next shuttle flight, but he will be advised by a task force that charged with making sure all the needed improvements have been made.

NASA will present a return-to-flight plan to Congress next week.