Friday was the 10th anniversary of the Columbia accident, and a few members of Congress—but only a few—as well as President Obama marked the occasions with columns or other statements about the accident. Those comments shared solemn sentiments about anniversary, but offered a spectrum of views about the future.
In his statement about NASA’s Day of Remembrance (available on NASA’s website but not showing up on whitehouse.gov), President Obama noted the Columbia anniversary, as well as the previous Challenger and Apollo 1 accidents, but mostly looked ahead. “The exploration of space represents one of the most challenging endeavors we undertake as a Nation,” he said, adding that “it’s imperative America continues to lead the world in reaching for the stars while giving us a better understanding of our home planet.” His statement then briefly described NASA efforts “that will eventually put Americans on Mars.” Among the items he cited was “the biggest booster since the Apollo-era Saturn V [that] is well on its way to launching a new American journey into deep space.” Of course, when the Obama Administration rolled out its proposed NASA revamp in its FY11 budget proposal—released on the seventh anniversary of the Columbia accident—that heavy-lift booster work was set to be deferred for five years.
Friday’s Orlando Sentinel featured a pair of op-eds from members of Congress tied to the Columbia anniversary but primarily focused on the future. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) largely laid out NASA’s current plan, including develop of the Space Launch System and Orion as well as commercial crew initiatives. “I’d say NASA’s future is bright,” he concludes. Nelson, chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, does note plans for a NASA reauthorization bill this year, but suggests it will not deviate much from the plan for the agency laid out in the 2010 bill: “the road map from the 2010 plan will continue guiding the agency.” He adds that he plans to “lead an update of space legislation to further enable private companies to meet our nation’s needs,” but offers no specifics.
However, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) called for more substantive changes to NASA in his Sentinel op-ed, including “divesting” NASA of “anything that can reasonably be placed in another agency,” such as Earth science. “We should prioritize technologies that give us the biggest bang for our buck, including solar-electric propulsion and cryogenic propellant storage and transfer,” he argues. He throws in calls for NASA efforts to clean up orbital debris and study near Earth objects. “We will never re-create Apollo, the product of many complex variables, but the truth is we don’t really want to re-create Apollo,” he states near the end of his piece. “This time we want to colonize the solar system, building settlements on the moon, in deep space, and on Mars.”
Rohrabacher also, unsurprisingly, expressed his support for commercial space transportation, but another House member noted safety concerns she had. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science Committee, said in an op-ed in The Hill that NASA must ensure “safety is not compromised in the process” of developing new systems. “[W]e cannot let our enthusiasm for the efforts of private enterprises — albeit ones that are getting significant taxpayer funding — to develop vehicles that could one day fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station lull us into a false sense of complacency,” she wrote, citing a recent report by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) that she said offered “troubling indicators” that compromised safety is a possibility.
“The best way to honor the crewmembers of the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 mission is to remember the hard lessons learned from that tragedy. Space travel is risky and is not yet mature,” Johnson writes in the conclusion of her op-ed. “I will work steadfastly with my fellow members of Congress to ensure that we pursue a meaningful human space flight program for our Nation, one that can continue to inspire Americans to look to the future, yet one that is grounded in NASA’s decades of experience, expertise, and hard-earned lessons.” And one that, presumably, can fit within the stricter fiscal constraints NASa is likely to experience in 2013 and for at least the next several years beyond.