28 August 2003
WASHINGTON, Aug. 27 — A report citing a "broken safety culture" at NASA has provoked a wide-ranging debate in Congress over the future of the space program, with some lawmakers suggesting that human spaceflight be curtailed and others promoting a broad expansion of space exploration, including a revival of long-shelved plans to send astronauts to Mars.
With Congress set to return next week from its August recess, lawmakers are planning an ambitious series of hearings on the report, issued on Tuesday by an independent panel investigating
the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia. The sessions will open a far-ranging discussion of national space policy.
"We are going to have to examine the whole issue of the future of manned space travel, where the emphasis should be, what our priorities are," said Senator John McCain,
Republican of Arizona and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, one of two Congressional panels planning hearings for next week.
Aside from correcting the safety problems at NASA as quickly as possible, lawmakers of both parties said their primary goal was to develop a new vision for space exploration. Some called
on President Bush to articulate his own agenda.
"The Bush administration needs to think out a doable yet inspiring set of goals," said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, who is chairman of the House
subcommittee that oversees the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "We need for the executive branch, as well as the legislative branch, to be trying to reach a consensus on
an overall space strategy."
Crawford, Tex, where Mr. Bush is vacationing, reporters asked his spokeswoman, Claire Buchan, about the White House's vision for space exploration.
"The president very much believes that space is an important frontier and that the space program should go forward," Ms. Buchan said, without elaborating.
Questions of how the program moves forward, and at what cost, are clearly on the table on Capitol Hill, where ideas run the gamut.
Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, wants to establish an advisory panel to oversee how the report's recommendations are carried out. Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of
Kansas, who is the chairman of the Senate subcommittee overseeing NASA, wants a presidential commission to develop a national space policy.
Mr. Brownback said that competition from the Chinese, who have announced plans to send humans into space this year, should prod Americans to return to the sense of purpose in the space
program's glory days of the 1960's.
And Mr. McCain said Congress needed to examine its own conduct, including pork-barrel spending and budget cuts to the agency that drew criticism from the investigators.
In the House, Representative Nick Lampson, Democrat of Texas, wants to nearly double NASA's $15 billion annual budget. Yet Representative Vernon J. Ehlers, Republican of Michigan, says he
thinks the space agency may need to scale back.
"What I want are facts and ideas for the future," said Mr. Ehlers, a physicist, who serves on the oversight subcommittee.
The House Science Committee is planning weekly hearings that will last into the winter. The first is set for next Thursday, when Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., the chairman of the independent
panel, is expected to testify. The following week, Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, is tentatively scheduled to appear.
Both men will also testify in the Senate, Mr. McCain said. He and Representative Sherwood L. Boehlert, the New York Republican who is the chairman of the House Science Committee, say they
are looking to NASA to make a strong case for continuing human spaceflight.
The continuation of the program "depends on whether the case is made," Mr. McCain said. "There is no doubt that the enthusiasm for the whole space effort has waned over the
years. Most Americans don't know what we are doing in space."
Mr. Boehlert said: "If they are expecting us to write a blank check, we are unwilling to do so. If they are expecting us to go forward at any risk, we're unwilling to do that
There was a strong sense among members of Congress today that manned space flights should continue in some form. But lawmakers expressed vastly different views about the style and scope
of human space exploration. Those views depended not so much on party affiliation as on region, with lawmakers in states like Texas and California , where NASA has a strong presence, most
supportive of it.
Mr. Lampson, whose district includes the Johnson Space Center and who serves on Mr. Rohrabacher's subcommittee, wants a return to the earlier, more spirited days of the space program. He
said he favored a sweeping agenda that would someday include manned flights to Mars.
"During the Apollo era we set aside almost 6 percent of the nation's budget for space exploration," he said. "You know what the number is today? It's less than six-tenths
of 1 percent. You can't cut and cut and cut and expect to do the same thing."
But Mr. Ehlers, of Michigan , was more cautious. He said Mars exploration was not technologically feasible, and not worth the money.
"We can put a Rover," an unmanned space vehicle, "on the surface of Mars for $150 million, which will give us a lot of data," Mr. Ehlers said. "And it would probably cost $150 billion to send a human to Mars and return that person alive."