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Columbia tragedy challenges U.S. space policy

Posted: Feb 1, 3:15 p.m. Updated: Feb. 1, 7 p.m.

WASHINGTON - The shuttle Columbia explosion will bring needed scrutiny to the nation's space policy, lawmakers and space advocates said Saturday.

Shuttle launches and landings had become somewhat routine and the public’s fascination with space travel seemed to wane in recent years as the workhorse vehicles were used almost exclusively to haul people and parts to and from the International Space Station.

``The American people have been lulled into a false sense of security by the effectiveness and diligence of our NASA team,'' said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. ``The space program has been on the back burner for the last 10 years for our political leadership.''

A veteran of U.S. space policy debate, the California Republican said the nation must mourn the loss of the seven astronauts. But the disaster also should force the Bush administration and others to confront the question of what should be the next phase of space exploration.

``This should cause us to reflect upon what our priorities are and what we want to do with the space program,'' he said.

The remaining shuttles will likely be grounded as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Congress and an independent commission - similar to the one formed after the Challenger explosion in 1986 - investigate Saturday’s disaster.

President Bush told the nation the Columbia astronauts knew the dangers “and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life.

“The cause in which they died will continue,” Bush said. “Mankind has led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and a longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.”

The tragedy comes as the Bush administration’s space team put the finishing touches on a year-long push to retool NASA and regain the credibility the storied agency lost during the Clinton administration as the International Space Station project floundered through repeated cost overruns and schedule delays.

Sean O’Keefe, a former Navy Secretary, college professor and an expert in government management, was appointed NASA administrator in late 2001 to bring order and direction to the agency.

O’Keefe moved quickly to put his stamp on the agency, installing management and accounting controls, appointing new managers to key positions and curtailing the nation’s commitment to the space station project to eliminate a projected $5 billion cost overrun.

Administration officials recently took steps to address long-standing questions about the aging shuttle fleet and a possible successor.

In November, the administration submitted a supplemental budget request to spend nearly $1 billion to begin developing an orbital space plane that would be smaller, cheaper and safer than the shuttles. The vehicle's primary purpose was to replace the heavy shuttle with an agile spacecraft that would carry only astronauts to and from the space station.

But the decision to move ahead with the space plane came after decisions to end spending on other, more ambitious spacecraft.

The shift in direction left some space-program advocates bitter.
``It seemed like every two years NASA was rolling out a new proposed vehicle but they would never go anywhere,'' said Rick Tumlinson, president of the Space Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group. ``Since Apollo we've been going in circles, operating without a clear mandate in space. What we have to do is develop a system of transportation into space that is going to be very reliable, safer, more efficient and cheaper.’’

More recently, there were signals the White House was looking beyond low Earth orbit.
In next week’s budget request to Congress, the Bush administration was expected to ask for more money for Project Prometheus and describe it in greater detail. The project is a new effort to develop nuclear-powered rocket engines and motors to power spacecraft through the solar system at greater speeds for long-duration missions.

Such an advance would be a necessary precursor to a human mission to Mars, the likely next stop for astronauts.
The administration already had announced its intention to spend $1 billion for initial development of these fission engines, which would be launched on ordinary chemical rockets and would fire once the craft reached the vacuum of space.

Those plans could be altered now as Congress and the White House deal with the impact the Columbia tragedy will have on the space program.

“There will probably be calls for an end to shuttle flights,” said Marc Schlather, president of the Washington-based advocacy group ProSpace. “We anticipate some senator or congressman standing up and pointing at NASA’s $15-billion budget and asking ‘What are we getting for this money?’"

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