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Thu, Oct 30, 2003

Congress Ponders The Very Future Of NASA

Shuttle Replacement In Doubt

"Mr. O'Keefe, this committee has on its plate 17 dead astronauts, three in Apollo I -- preventable -- seven in the Challenger -- preventable -- and apparently preventable in the Columbia."

Yikes.

That chilling refrain from South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings greeted NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe Wednesday at the Senate Science Committee hearings on Capitol Hill. O'Keefe was there to push for a $15 billion replacement for the aging space shuttle. The very existence of the space program was what senators really had on their minds.

Former Navy pilot and Vietnam veteran John McCain (R-AZ) told O'Keefe, NASA's vision "has to be something that Americans can be excited about and be committed to. And I'm afraid that's been lacking recently in the whole NASA ... agenda."

One tough day on Capitol Hill for Mr. O'Keefe. The hotseat treatment in the Senate came just a week after O'Keefe and company were raked over the coals by the House Science Committee. Members there wrote a blistering letter to the NASA chieftain, saying his budget for the space plane project was unrealistic and doomed to failure.

Still, O'Keefe forged ahead, saying NASA will accelerate the intermediate shuttle replacement. Until now, the space plane wasn't even scheduled for orbital tests until 2006.

Referring to recommendations from the Columbia Accident Investigation Committee (CAIB), O'Keefe told Sen. Hollings on Wednesday, "What we're trying to do with the orbital space plane, with the crew transfer vehicle, is do precisely what the board report has recommended, which is to separate the crew from the cargo."

Based largely on existing technologies, NASA says the Orbital Space Plane will provide safe, affordable access to the International Space Station. The OSP program is more than a spacecraft. The program will take an integrated systems approach to design the entire space transportation system — including ground operations, space vehicle and all supporting technologies needed to conduct a mission to and from the International Space Station. In addition, flight demonstrators such as the X-37 vehicle will flight test advancing technologies to reduce the risk of future reusable launch vehicle systems.

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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