O’Keefe announces likely delay of Shuttle flight this fall

WASHINGTON, D.C. – NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe told the House Science Committee today that there was only a “very low prospect” that the Space Shuttle would be able to resume flying this fall as had been planned.

O’Keefe made the statement in response to a question from House Science Committee Chairman Boehlert (R-NY).  O’Keefe said return to flight was likely to be delayed by the need for more time to develop a shuttle inspection capability and to reduce debris shedding over a larger area of the Shuttle’s External Tank.

O’Keefe and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Marburger appeared before the Science Committee at its first hearing on the proposed Space Exploration Initiative, which President Bush announced on January 14.  Most of the questioning focused on the costs of the proposed initiative. 

“Is this initiative a high enough priority – a pressing enough priority – to be funded in such a [tight] budget?  I don’t know,” said Chairman Boehlert.  “So, I’m in a quandary, quite frankly.  And the answers we get today will help me determine which way to turn.  I imagine that will be true of others on this panel, and certainly of others in this Congress.  The advance of human space flight is an engaging dream, but I want to know how we’re going to feel when we wake up.”

“When I asked the simple question – ‘What did you tell the president when he asked you the cost of his initiative?’ — I couldn’t get a clear answer from the administration’s witnesses.  That troubles me.  We can’t properly assess the affordability of this initiative without having an idea of the costs to carry it out,” said Ranking Democrat Bart Gordon (D-TN).

Under questioning from Gordon on the cost uncertainty, O’Keefe responded “[T]here is no pretense of precision program numbers out through 2020 that would give you that level of granularity to say, ‘This is the cost of that broader set of mission objectives.’  It’s going to be a combination of all of them and depending on which sequence you pursue.”

Also while discussing costs, O’Keefe said the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the new vehicle that would take astronauts to the moon, would cost “in the range” of  $15 billion.  He also said NASA was still reviewing whether U.S. participation in the International Space Station would conclude in 2016 – the date spending ends on a chart NASA released the day of the President’s speech. 

Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee Chairman Vern Ehlers (R-MI) and Ranking Democrat Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) also questioned O’Keefe and Marburger on the decision to cancel the Hubble Space Telescope.  The Hubble, which has been enormously successful, is expected to stop working around 2007 without a servicing mission.   Many astronomers are lobbying for that mission to occur, and before the President’s initiative was announced, a panel assembled by NASA called for another servicing mission to be added to extend the telescope’s life even further. 

“While I want to hear more about the President’s proposed space initiative, my immediate concern is that NASA do nothing that would prematurely eliminate the chance to do a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission,” stated Rep. Udall.  “I do not believe the Administrator answered my questions concerning NASA’s timetable for complying with the CAIB’s recommendation that all Shuttle missions have an autonomous on-orbit repair and inspection capability – something that would permit the Hubble mission to proceed safely.”

Administrator O’Keefe characterized the decision to cancel the Hubble mission as “among the most painful decisions I’ve ever had to confront.”  O’Keefe explained that the decision was based on NASA’s desire to comply with the safety recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.  “In the case of the servicing mission, it is the combination of each and every one of the variables, when you add them up is a higher risk than the risk involved in going to station,” said O’Keefe.

Dr. Marburger noted, “No one is disputing that the Hubble is a very valuable instrument…but it’s also true that the Hubble’s uniqueness is diminishing and that it has essentially approached the end of its design life.  Yes, we could continue to keep it alive by servicing it in this way but there are alternative ways of getting the same or similar scientific data, so that the risk-benefit equation has been altered as a result of technical progress.”

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) expressed concern about the lack of U.S. options for crew transport to and from the International Space Station once the Russian obligation to provide Soyuz crew return vehicles ends in 2006, as well in the four years between the retirement of the Shuttle in 2010 and the first flight of the Crew Exploration Vehicle in 2014. “I am concerned that the Administration still has no plan for addressing the incompatibility between the terms of the Iran Nonproliferation Act and NASA’s planned reliance on the Russian Soyuz.  The clock is running, and Administrator O’Keefe has still not provided us with any specific solutions to a problem that we have been highlighting for more than two years.  The Administration needs to deliver a plan, not simply engage in more discussions,” Lampson said.

Members of the Committee expressed a variety of different opinions and had additional questions regarding the President’s proposal.

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) noted, “The successful development of new space industries will undoubtedly hinge on expanding market opportunities.  The new space exploration mandate calls for promoting commercial space, but NASA is unclear how private space ventures will support missions to low Earth orbit.  NASA must make clear how its long-term investments in future exploration activities support an intelligent combination of focused manned missions, robotic exploration, and private-sector initiatives.”

Research Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) wondered, “Is it worth it, at this time of record high deficit spending, to borrow this money from our kids and our grandkids for this kind of venture at this time?  As Chairman of the Research Subcommittee…I’ve often questioned witnesses on the justification for manned space flight as well as the space station.  Some witnesses have expressed concern that the costs are too high and the benefits too few compared to the results that we could get by investing this money in other research that can better help us in the future.”

“The President’s vision of robotic and manned missions to the moon and Mars would provide NASA with a clear and compelling mission that the agency has lacked for far too long.  As with all daring initiatives, the President’s vision for NASA poses significant challenges,” said Rep. Ehlers.  “Enthusiasm for the President’s proposal must be tempered by the realities that face us.  Completing the International Space Station, developing a new unmanned space vehicle and mounting missions to the moon and Mars will all take vast amounts of dedication, innovation, effort and money to accomplish.”

“President Bush’s vision for the United States space program with a return to the Moon and exploration of Mars is the first step in an exciting journey that is important to every American.  I hope the President’s challenge to America will be as galvanizing and successful as President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.” said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (MD-6).  Bartlett earned a Masters and in PhD in Human Physiology, holds 20 patents and worked on NASA’s Gemini, Mercury and Apollo Missions to the Moon as Director of the Space Life Sciences Division at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL).

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL), “After so many called for vision and leadership in America’s space program, the President delivered a bold, focused, and paced strategy for expanding our reach beyond low earth orbit.  Acting upon this vision will allow America to maintain its preeminence as a space faring nation with continued benefits for science, technology, national security, and inspiration of our young.”

Chairman Boehlert concluded the hearing by noting, “It should be evident to all concerned…that costs are a major consideration and there’s a lot of uncertainty about the cost.  And the funding chart, while attractive, leaves some questions for all of us.  This is not the beginning of the end, this is the end of the beginning, and we will have more substantive hearings like this one as we move forward together to try to shape the best possible, responsible policy – not just for NASA but for the nation.”