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Space Shuttle Columbia

Congress to examine NASA's future in wake of Columbia report

Hearings planned on space agency

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

House and Senate committees will hold hearings on NASA this fall, according to lawmakers.
House and Senate committees will hold hearings on NASA this fall, according to lawmakers.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congress and the White House must "chart the future for NASA" a key lawmaker said Tuesday in the wake of a critical report that examined what led to the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia and the loss of its crew.

Both the House and Senate will hold committee hearings this fall to review the report -- which placed partial blame on the NASA culture -- and consider what changes may be in order at the space agency, lawmakers said.

"We need to put together a full picture of the actual risks and costs of the space shuttle before deciding whether and how the program should be run," Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee, said in a written statement.

"We need to think through every aspect of the way the shuttle program has been organized. All this will take some time. There should not be a rush to judgment," he said.

The recommendations from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board would help Congress and the administration "chart the future for NASA," Boehlert said.

With Congress on its August recess and President Bush on the road in Minnesota and Missouri, initial political reaction in Washington to the report was muted. Still, some lawmakers made a point of voicing their commitment to NASA and space exploration, sentiments that echoed Congressional comments in the immediate wake of the February 1 tragedy.

"It is imperative that America remains at the forefront of space exploration and discovery," said Sen. Sam Brownback, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space. "It is our job here in Congress to take this report and move forward expeditiously in getting Americans in space safely aboard an American vehicle."

Brownback, a Kansas Republican, said the Senate would hold hearings this fall, declaring there is "a lot of work to do before the shuttle can fly again."

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Congress must address the "flaws" in NASA's culture and "define the goals of the human space flight program." The committee, the Arizona Republican said, will hold its first hearing on the report on September 16.

Boehlert, a New York Republican, said his House committee would also review the report, which says a lack of "check and balances" within management and an inadequate safety program contributed to the loss of Columbia.

The "physical cause" of the fatal breakup was blamed on a piece of foam that broke lose and hit the shuttle's wing during takeoff.(Full story)

The report also takes a hit at Congress, criticizing its oversight role. NASA, said the report, remains a "politicized and vulnerable agency, dependent on key political players who accepted NASA's ambitious proposals and then imposed strict budget limits."

A series of hearings, Boehlert said, would start September 4 when retired Adm. Hal Gehman, head of the investigative board, is scheduled to testify. Future hearings would focus on risk assessment, management structure and budgets, the lawmaker said, adding that NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe would testify at several of the hearings.

"The decisions we make in the next few months will affect the future of the space program for decades to come," Boehlert said. "They need to be made deliberately. That's the proper way to honor the memories of the Columbia crew."

One New York lawmaker said the report was reminiscent of NASA's internal analysis following the Challenger disaster in 1986, which also cited poor communication and an ineffective management structure at the space agency. Little had apparently changed, said Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat.

"How can we put more brave astronauts in harm's way solely on NASA's assurance that this time they'll get it right?" asked Weiner.

Congressional Producer Steve Turnham contributed to this report.


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