After the Challenger space shuttle exploded on takeoff in 1986, the prominent physicist Richard Feynman dramatically conducted an experiment visually linking the cause and effect for all to understand. He carefully dipped the rubber O-rings into a glass of ice water to replicate what had happened when they hardened, cracked and, consequently, malfunctioned. An independent panel, known as the Rogers Commission, generally concluded that NASA officials and contractors were largely at fault. The report went on to list poor communications with management, sacrificing standards to remain within the budget, and not paying enough attention to hazards and warnings.
Now, 17 years later, the Columbia has disintegrated upon re-entry. We cannot merely round up the usual cast of suspects, appoint the same names to an investigation board and point the finger at the predictable target. It is too important to understand how this happened, what decisions led us there and how to fix it.
Whatever the final conclusion, the newly appointed Gehman Commission tasked with discovering the cause should be loaded with independent and aggressive individuals willing to challenge Congressional budgeting decisions and oversight performance. Everything should be on the table.
The commission should have begun its investigation 10 years before last month’s takeoff of Columbia. On June 23, 1993, Congress voted 216-215 to authorize $13 billion for space station costs over the next decade. While Members of Congress, the administration and especially NASA recognized that the space station was experiencing significant design glitches, cost overruns and scheduling delays, they also knew that more money would eventually be needed in the overall NASA budget. But the overall NASA budget level would decline in real dollars over the next 10 years. The space station overruns multiplied.
Something had to give. The overall NASA budget went from $14.36 billion in 1993 to $14.9 billion in 2002. However, this declining budget in real dollars included an increase in 2002 for securing the NASA facilities from terrorist threats after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. What happened during this same period to the space shuttle budget? In 1994, the budget for the shuttle was $3.8 billion. It was cut each year for eight years by more than $500 million. In 1997, $200 million was moved from the “shuttle account” to the “space station account” by NASA with Congress’ approval. Meanwhile, the space station budget grew to $2.4 billion and then went down to $2.1 billion. Due to NASA’s many alterations in accounting during this 10-year period, it is extremely difficult to calculate precise figures for many of these programs. The commission should get a detailed and thorough explanation on how much was spent and where the money went.
By 1996, a single prime contractor took over the shuttle operations. The “USA” on the astronauts’ uniforms now stood for “United Space Alliance,” a collaboration of private-sector companies. Did Congress object? Approve? Ring the alarm bells? I was a member of one of the responsible committees, and we didn’t do enough.
The Gehman Commission should analyze the role of Congress in many of these important decisions. In the end, Congress may or may not be part of the problem. But it can be part of the solution.
The House and Senate space oversight committees have a historic opportunity to conduct 18 months of comprehensive oversight hearings over the remaining 108th Congress. They should produce a comprehensive and long-range report detailing general options for a pared down space station, a plan for robotic space exploration even beyond Mars, a robust replacement shuttle, a bigger and better Hubble telescope, and a vision for human space travel using nuclear propulsion technology. And they must propose an affordable and sustainable budget without sacrificing the viability of one program for the benefit of another.
This would be like the phoenix rising from earth, a testimony and living memorial to the seven Columbia astronauts. Together, their spirits and earthly remains would break “the surly bonds of earth.”
Former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) is a partner with Johnston and Associates and a distinguished scholar at George Mason University.