(Washington, DC) – U.S. Representative Nick Smith (R-MI), a member of the House Science Committee, commented on the report released this morning by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), led by retired Admiral Harold Gehman. 

“This is without question a critical turning point in NASA’s history,” Smith said.  “I commend the Admiral Gehman and his team for their work in this effort.  It is now up to Congress to thoroughly consider all of the findings and recommendations of the CAIB Report and determine the best course of action for the Future of space exploration and NASA in general.  Accordingly, the House Science Committee, which maintains oversight of NASA, will be holding a series of hearings in September to address these questions.”

The 13-member independent board was convened immediately after the February 1st Columbia disaster to determine the cause of the accident and how to improve the shuttle program.  The 250-page report concluded that the most probable cause of the disaster was that a piece of insulating from from the bipod – a part of the orange External Tank – came loose 82 seconds after launch and struck a hole in the left wing of the Orbiter, making the Shuttle vulnerable to the 3000 degree temperatures generated from friction upon re-entry into the earth’s atmostphere.

Smith, a senior member of the Science Committee and Chairman of the Research Subcommittee since 1999, said the Columbia accident and CAIB findings highlight the need to revisit longstanding questions concerning how much money should be invested in manned space flight.  “The American people deserve a safe, efficient space program that maximizes scientific research and eliminates wasteful spending.  Since flying the Space Shuttle Simulator in Houston when I first came to Congress in 1993 as a member of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, I have questioned the cost and priority given to manned space flight as opposed to unmanned space flight.  While manned shuttles do provide us with some scientific information, the major objective of most missions has been simply to re-supply the space station.  We should be careful not to rush to judgment, but we need to ask ourselves if this is the optimal structure for the future of our space program.  I believe it is likely that we will conclude that a shift in emphasis toward unmanned flight is reasonable for both safety and research value,” Smith said.

Smith also noted that the report not only discusses the technical problems that placed the shuttle at risk and ultimately led to the accident, but also examines the bureaucratic and cultural problems within NASA that hindered the technical problems from being appropriately addressed.  “While it is understandable that a government agency as large as NASA, with 18,000 employees and a budget of over $15 billion, will suffer from a certain amount of bureaucracy, it is especially critical that these bureaucratic problems do not effect the safety of the shuttle program.  It appears, however, that this was the case, and it should be a top priority of NASA and Congress to work together to address these problems.”

Smith said the report’s findings and the Committee’s follow-up hearings will likely form the basis for the NASA reauthorization bill the Committee plans to take up early next year.  The Science Committee has planned five hearings on this topic for September, the first to take place on September 4 when Admiral Gehman presents the CAIB findings.