Congress set to launch a NASA overhaul

Shuttle hearings begin Wednesday. Safety and more focused funding top agenda.

As NASA officials sift through the debris of the space shuttle Columbia, Congress Wednesday a parallel search for the political choices that may have contributed to the loss of that orbiter and its crew.

Such scrutiny "is long overdue," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who cochairs the joint Congressional panel that will convene Wednesday's hearings with NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe. "The tragedy demands finding out what happened ... and a thorough reexamination of policy."

Already, there's no lack of suggestions for where to begin. Two hearings on shuttle safety in the last two years sounded stark alarms on Capitol Hill on whether the nation had cheaped out on space, especially on safety upgrades for the aging orbiter fleet.

Other lawmakers worry that the nearly $5 billion cost overrun for the International Space Station is draining critical resources from the shuttle program. Or that the politics of NASA - including seeding elements of the space program through congressional districts all over the United States - has created a program too diffuse and unfocused.

But at a time when cutting federal budgets seemed the secret of prolonging the boom years of the 1990s, even the prospect of another shuttle disaster wasn't enough to focus attention on more money for space or on the tough political decisions to pare down - and fully fund - NASA's mission.

Moreover, the 9/11 attacks relegated NASA's troubles - and the Cassandras in Congress worried about them - back into deep political orbit. With the loss of the Columbia, that political calculus has changed.

"I fear that if we don't provide the space shuttle program with the resources it needs for safety upgrades in the future, our country is going to pay a price that we cannot bear," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida at a hearing five days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Now, he's leading the charge in the Senate to rethink space policy. One of the first elements of any reformswill likely be more funding for NASA, targeted to shuttle safety. After the 1986 Challenger disaster, Congress increased NASA funding some 40 percent. Already, appropriators are pledging to give the agency whatever it needs for safety upgrades as early as the fiscal year 2003 omnibus appropriation package, now in its final days of negotiation.

"It is the highest priority," says Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The White House requested $15.5 billion for NASA in a budget document drafted before the loss of the shuttle Columbia. That request, which included a 5 percent increase for the shuttle program, will certainly get a big bump up on Capitol Hill in budget negotiations this spring.

NASA's biggest boosters, including Senator Nelson, who flew on a Columbia shuttle mission in 1986, have long argued that NASA officials have lowballed their budget requests in response to pressure from the president's Office of Management and Budget, which is charged with holding the line on spending and deficits. Last year, the Bush administration proposed a $699 million cut in NASA's human-flight space budget, to help offset cost overruns on the International Space Station.

"We've got accountants making life-and-death technical decisions for our astronauts and our ground crews.... I personally believe that you all have had your hands tied," Nelson told NASA officials at the 2001 hearing.

NASA's budget continued to increase after the Challenger explosion until 1992, after which it held flat until 2001, then dropped. "In the mid to late 1990s, when budget balancing became a big goal, NASA was not seen as something worth running deficits for," says Brian Riedl, a federal budgetary analyst at the Heritage Foundation here.

Now, the buzzwords for many lawmakers are focus and efficiency. "We need to pare the mission to what we really need to do in the next 50 years, and then fund it fully and adequately," says Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas. NASA operates more than a dozen centers in 12 states, in addition to the launch site at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the control center in Houston. Some may be pared back.

At the same time, critics say more of the program may shift to private hands. "I think what [policymakers] are going to find is that NASA's current mission does not justify the risks that are being taken. The money could be better spent building better space telescopes or going to Mars," says Edward Hudgins, an adjunct scholar at the CATO Institute.

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