Friday, May 9, 2003

A congressman from Texas said yesterday that NASA’s shuttle program should be scrapped because it is too risky, and he vowed not to approve funding for manned spaceflight that relies on the three remaining shuttles.

Rep. Joe L. Barton, a 10-term Republican, is the first member of Congress to call for an end to the program since the Feb. 1 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts.

“The accident rate is just too high and you can’t fix it,” Mr. Barton said after a hearing of the House Science Committee’s space and aeronautics subcommittee.

NASA has made 113 shuttle flights since 1981, and 14 astronauts have died in two shuttle explosions. The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing seven astronauts.”

I oppose gratuitously risking our astronauts’ lives,” Mr. Barton said. “In my opinion, we cannot make the orbiter as safe as it needs to be.”

It is the second time in a week that a member of the Texas delegation — which generally supports NASA because of the number of people it employs at Johnson Space Center in Houston — has criticized the space agency.

During a Senate hearing last week, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, also a Texas Republican, said the agency botched its handling of internal communications after the Columbia was destroyed.

The senator said concerns from engineers about damage to Columbia didn’t reach senior administrators.

Responding to Mr. Barton’s criticism, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said human involvement in spaceflight is essential in the immediate future and the space shuttle is the only vehicle available.

“Without people, you don’t build the International Space Station, you don’t service the Hubble telescope and you don’t conduct space-based research,” he said.

NASA has said repeatedly it plans to resume shuttle operations and that the flights can be safe.

The agency is waiting for the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board to complete its inquiry into the shuttle’s disintegration and come up with a list of recommendations to improve orbiter safety.

Mr. Barton was unwavering in his criticism of the program.

“I’m not saying ‘no’ to manned flight. I just don’t think we can have safe shuttle flights. I will support more resources for manned spaceflight, but I’m through turning a blind eye to an accident rate” of two shuttle wrecks for every 113 flights, he said. “An accident rate of one every 62½ missions if 14 Americans have lost their lives is not acceptable.”

NASA hopes to fly the shuttle through the middle of the next decade.

But the agency should invest in new technology, Mr. Barton said.

“I think we ought to spend the money on building the best technology orbiter or space plane that we have,” he said.

NASA last year began developing the Orbital Space Plane, which could cost $13 billion.

It would take over some of the shuttle’s duties. By 2010, the vehicle is supposed to return astronauts from the space station. By 2012, it is supposed to transport them there.

The agency has scrapped two designs for similar vehicles after spending $1.4 billion.

Congress heaped criticism on NASA during the subcommittee hearing, accusing it of wasting money and not being further along with plans for the Orbital Space Plane.

“For the last five years, I’ve been supporting allocation of resources to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, and we still don’t have anything to show for it,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican and chairman of the subcommittee.

NASA officials dispute that they have nothing to show for their efforts.

“I feel very, very good about the amount of progress we’ve made with respect to the Orbital Space Plane,” said John Rogacki, NASA’s director of space transportation technology.

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