February 12, 2003
Rohrabacher one of best-positioned to probe NASA on Columbia disaster
BY Dana Wilkie
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON As a congressional committee convened Wednesday to learn more about Space Shuttle Columbia's fatal flight, Dana Rohrabacher was perhaps one of the lawmakers best positioned to question NASA about the recent disaster that claimed seven astronauts.
For six years, the Republican congressman, who represents the Palos Verdes Peninsula and parts of the Harbor Area, has led the House in overseeing the nation's space and aeronautics programs. And he has never been shy about pointing out NASA's shortcomings.
On Wednesday, Rohrabacher was characteristically blunt as he questioned NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe about whether the Columbia shuttle was too old to be flying missions.
"You will find out, I believe, that age was indeed a factor," said Rohrabacher, who is chairman of the House Science Committee's subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
The Columbia was the oldest of the shuttle program's four orbiters. Its first flight was in 1981.
O'Keefe, who was on the hot-seat Wednesday as the Senate Commerce and House Science committees questioned him jointly, explained that the Columbia had just gone through an extensive maintenance check before taking off Jan. 16 for a 16-day research mission.
"(The Columbia) was half the age of the average bomber aircraft that flew in Afghanistan just a year ago," O'Keefe told Rohrabacher.
As the Columbia descended from orbit the morning of Feb. 1, it broke apart over northeastern Texas just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Among the many questions that committee members have are whether the shuttle program is getting enough money to ensure astronaut safety, and whether a board created by O'Keefe to investigate the accident is sufficiently independent of NASA.
Rohrabacher, who often peered over his reading glasses at O'Keefe during the first hearing into the Columbia disaster, would normally have rotated out of his spot as subcommittee chairman this year, because he has led the panel the maximum six years allowed by the House.
But Sherwood Boehlert, the New York Republican who is chairman of the Science Committee, let the congressman keep his post.
"I thought it would be exceptionally advantageous for all concerned to have someone with his knowledge, his commitment and his willingness to work hard," Boehlert said. "He is constantly probing for solutions to problems."
The 55-year-old Rohrabacher, a former White House aide and journalist who has been in Congress 14 years, often questions NASA expenses and cost overruns. He has also pushed the agency to consider what it will do when the space shuttle program ends. The shuttle program was designed to fly 100 missions, and to end in 2012.
Rohrabacher resurrected that question Wednesday when he asserted that NASA has failed to consider how it will "replace shuttle programs before age becomes a factor."
"The lack of long-term goals for America's space effort needs to be addressed to fully understand this tragedy," the congressman told O'Keefe.
Speculation about the cause of the accident has focused on a piece of insulating foam that broke off the Columbia's external fuel tank barely a minute after liftoff. The foam slammed into the ship's left wing. In the Columbia's final minutes of flight, some sensors on the left wing and in the left wheel well showed unusual temperature spikes.
Another possibility is that the shuttle was struck by space debris.
Despite his criticisms, Rohrabacher made it clear that he remains committed to the nation's space-exploration program. The congressman, who attended last week's Texas memorial service for the astronauts, said he was struck by all the children he saw waving flags and carrying banners.
"We recognize there is a special bond between the children of America and our astronauts," Rohrabacher told the committee. "If there's going to be a better future for our children, we've got to have a reliable space program."