We must remain steadfast on space flight safety

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In the ensuing months, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) proceeded to painstakingly study what went wrong and how such a tragedy could be avoided in the future. While the Board found that a piece of foam insulation that broke off the fuel tank and hit the left wing — damaging the one of the protective surfaces — was the immediate cause, they also found numerous other issues that contributed to the loss of the Shuttle. These included mischaracterization of the Shuttle as an operational system when in fact it was “still far from a routine operational undertaking”; years of resource constraints that were not well matched to the program’s actual needs, and cultural and organizational traits that crept into the Shuttle program — including being lulled into letting past successes serve as a substitute for enforcing rigorous engineering and test practices. 

Today, we find ourselves at the beginning of yet another chapter in the Nation’s space exploration program. With the Shuttle fleet retired, NASA’s human space flight priorities are focused on effective use of the International Space Station; the development of a beyond low Earth orbit exploration capability using the System Launch System and Orion crew capsule; and public/private partnerships that, if successful, will eventually allow NASA to buy rides — not vehicles — to transport its astronauts to the ISS.

The difficult economic environment the rest of the Nation is dealing with has hit NASA as well. Yet, in spite of years of having its funding tightened, NASA is still expected to continue to successfully carry out the ambitious programs the Nation has asked the agency to undertake. While I agree that attempts to wring out inefficiencies and avoidable costs should always be encouraged, we need to ensure that safety is not compromised in the process.  Unfortunately, according to the Aerospace Advisory Panel, a body established by Congress in 1968 to provide advice and make recommendations to the NASA Administrator on safety matters, there are troubling indicators that this is increasingly a possibility.

In addition, we 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. As the CAIB noted throughout its investigation, by the time of the Columbia accident there was a “widespread but erroneous perception of the Space Shuttle as somehow comparable to civil or military air transport. They are not comparable; the inherent risks of spaceflight are vastly higher, and our experience level with spaceflight is vastly lower. If Shuttle operations came to be viewed as routine, it was, at least in part, thanks to the skill and dedication of those involved in the program. They have made it look easy, though in fact it never was.” As we contemplate new human spaceflight systems, whether governmental or commercial, we should never forget that fact, or let tight budgets blind us to the need to take the necessary steps to ensure safety is protected.

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. We cannot be lulled into a false sense of security that we know it all, because we don’t. 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. As we pause to mark the 10th anniversary of the loss of Columbia, I hope that we will recommit ourselves to continuing the important work for which its astronauts gave their lives.

Johnson is the ranking member fo the House Space, Science and Technology Committee.