House science chair calls for space vision

National Aeronautic and Space Administration

The United States must develop a clear vision for space exploration, said the chairman of the House Science Committee and the admiral heading the independent board looking into the Columbia accident.

"We need to have a national debate and reach a consensus to give us a vision," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chair of the committee.

The committee met to hear testimony regarding NASA's organizational and management challenges after the shuttle disaster. In the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's final report, released Aug. 26, NASA was faulted for "organizational deficiencies" which led to the Feb. 1 space shuttle disaster that killed seven astronauts.

According to the investigation board's chairman, Adm. Harold Gehman, NASA's lack of vision is a major reason for management problems within the space agency.

The accident review board "felt very strongly that the lack of an agreed vision for what we want to do in space gets in the way of a lot of very practical day to day things," Gehman told the House committee. "If we don't have a good, exciting vision that people can buy into, we don't address the problems...as they would if they knew where they were going."

Since the Columbia Accident Investigation Board released its final report, NASA has been revising its organizational plan in response to the board's recommendations. The process could take months to complete.

"NASA must come up with the right organizational plan and make sure it is taken to heart," Boehlert said. "This committee will then have to review that plan with a fine-toothed comb."

Gehman told the committee he favors an independent review of the International Space Station, similar to the one performed on the space shuttle program.

"The kind of look we gave here, at management schemes and how safety is handled, probably would be a good idea for the space station to get the same kind of examination," Gehman said.

Many committee members also expressed their agreement for a review during the hearing, not only of the space station but also of the possibility for reduced manned-space flights.

Rep. Ralph Hall (D-Texas) said he would like an independent group to review NASA's progress in meeting the Columbia accident report's recommendations. Hall also stressed his desire to see a crew escape system developed before any future shuttle flights.

Panelists at the hearing included Adm. Frank Bowman, director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, who said an organization must ingrain safety into each member. He also disagreed with the committee's estimation that a separate group is needed to monitor safety within a large agency such as NASA, advising that such a group might create tension.

"I don't believe an organization should rely on an independent organization off to the side to oversee safety," Bowman said. "There is no magic formula. Safety must be in the mainstream."

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