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"NSS Capital Capsule" updated September 22, 1997

Mir Safety Hearing, September 18, House Science Committee:
Members Take Sides, Mir Safety Questioned

The full House Science Committee held a hearing on Mir's safety and the merit of continuing U.S. participation last Wednesday. Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chairman of the committee, called for a suspension of "long-term visits by U.S. astronauts until the problems on Mir can be resolved."

Sensenbrenner said the benefits of continuing to participate on the station are not commensurate with the risks. Prior to the Challenger accident in January of 1986, engineers identified numerous problems, but they were not evaluated as a pattern of activity that could lead to disaster. Sensenbrenner said the repeated mishaps on Mir offer a comparable warning that should be heeded.

Cong. George Brown (D-CA), the ranking member of the committee, said he was in "substantial agreement" with much of Sensenbrenner's opening statement. However, he bristled at the fact that the hearing was not postponed for one week so that General Thomas Stafford, who is in Russia conducting a safety analysis of Mir, could appear before the committee to provide his views. (The next planned flight to Mir is slated for next Thursday, September 25.)

Sensenbrenner pledged to hold additional hearings on Mir's safety to gather testimony by Stafford as well as astronauts. Brown said members of the committee "are not in a position to credibly evaluate astronaut debriefings, fragments of engineering analyses, and so forth....We cannot be NASA's safety engineers, and we should not pretend otherwise."

Cong. Dave Weldon (R-FL) also said NASA may be "ignoring warning signs" aboard the Mir. According to Weldon, the "rationale for continued U.S. participation in Russia's space station Mir program is seriously in doubt." The Florida congressman discussed troubling reports that implicate Yuri Koptev, head of the Russian Space Agency, in the transfer of missile technology to Iran. "A key diplomatic justification for cooperating with Russia in space was to prevent Russian scientists from working for rogue nations, but this recent allegation about Mr. Koptev," Weldon said, "mocks that original justification."

Surprisingly, the hearing turned out to be especially partisan, with most Democrats lobbing softball questions at the panel testifying before the committee, while Republicans prodded and poked at issues, searching for weaknesses in NASA's defense of the Mir program.

Highlights of testimony include comments from:

  1. Roberta Gross, NASA Inspector General -- Gross provided an overview of an interim inspector general report that evaluates the "processes and procedures" for assessing the risks and benefits of participating in the U.S./Mir program. She said the three mechanisms for evaluating Mir's safety are questionable due to: "a) the chilling impact of free discussion and criticism caused by the pivotal role of the Johnson Space Center (JSC) for the human space program; b) the lack of independence of the Stafford team due to its perceived ties to the JSC Center Director; and c) the reduced level of risk assessment performed because of the overriding goal to continue participation in the U.S./Russian Partnership."
  2. Frank Culbertson, NASA manager for the U.S./Russian Mir program -- Culbertson offered many details on NASA's evaluation process to ensure the Mir's continuing safety. According to Culbertson, the primary goal of the U.S./Mir missions is to "learn to work with each other [U.S. and Russia], both in space and in ground support activities." He concluded that the program "can continue at an acceptable level of safety risk that is no greater than was present in the past." Culbertson presented a very positive evaluation of the Mir program, with problems down played and benefits highlighted. There was no second guessing in his evaluation. Culbertson said the greatest threat to Mir -- and the international space station -- is not equipment failure but orbital debris that could cause depressurization.
  3. James Oberg, author and consultant -- Oberg said Mir's increasing problems are predictable and due to the "decay of government support for space activities [that] has forced what's left of [Russia's] infrastructure to stretch scarce resources, use up reserves, drop levels of redundancy, push hardware well beyond planned lifetimes, and other practices which have had predictable impacts on flight success and safety." Oberg called for an independent "Blue Ribbon Panel" to evaluate Mir's safety.
  4. Marcia Smith, Congressional Research Service Policy Analyst -- Smith said "NASA seems already to have achieved most of the objectives set out for the Shuttle-Mir program." About the continuing mishaps aboard Mir, she cautioned that "the picture may not be as bleak as what is being portrayed in the media. While Mir is experiencing more anomalies than in the past, as would be expected with an aging system, the cosmonauts have extensive experience in space station repairs." Regarding science experiments aboard Mir, much of the scientific hardware was located in the damaged Spektr module, including a centrifuge, freezer, bicycle ergometer, cardiovascular monitor and gas analyzer. Until equipment can be replaced, "U.S. scientific research will be limited to a greenhouse and the experiments in [the] Priroda [module]."
Senate Hearing on International Space Station (ISS) Funding, September 19:

Goldin Address Schedules, Reserves and Mir Deorbit / Strategic Words from Sen. Burns

The Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space also convened an oversight hearing on Thursday in which members garnered information on the international space station. Testifying before the subcommittee were NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, GAO Associate Director Allen Li, and Douglas Stone, Boeing Vice President and Program Manager for the ISS.

Goldin announced that "NASA has identified an additional funding requirement totaling $430 million for the ISS Program and related requirements beyond amounts included in the President's FY 1998 budget submission. If NASA is required to keep spending under the $2.1 billion cap, Goldin said he will have no choice but to let the station schedule slip. As an alternative, he said NASA "is prepared to accommodate the majority of the necessary adjustments without our pending FY 1998 budget request." In other words, Goldin prefers to transfer funds from internal budgets to the space station account. Especially vulnerable to cuts, according to Goldin, would be the areas of mission support and research grants to universities. Goldin pledged to protect funding for space and earth science programs.

Goldin said NASA is not planning to conduct any additional missions to Mir after the ninth flight next June and that soon thereafter he believes Russia will begin preparations to deorbit Mir. There is agreement among NASA, the GAO, and Boeing that cost overruns to build the space station will be at least $600 million, about nine percent of Boeing's total ISS budget. Goldin said the ISS 1997 reserves have all been spent and next year's reserves will total about $150 million.

Senator Burns (R-MT), who also attended part of the hearing -- along with subcommittee chair Senator Frist (R-TN) and ranking member Senator Rockefeller, D-WV -- called for a long-term plan for America's space program. He said, "It is time that we start setting our sights on where we want to be in 20 years, 40 years," to determine "what our goal is" and whether "... this country [will] be bold enough to provide the leadership?"


About the "NSS Capital Capsule"
The Capsule is a timely report of highlights from Capitol Hill hearings and other events involving space issues. Prepared by NSS staff or volunteers who attend in person, the Capsule provides NSS members and activists an "insider's" look into the thoughts of our national elected officials on space issues.


The National Space Society is an independent space advocacy group headquartered in Washington, DC. Its 25,000 members and 95 chapters support the creation of a spacefaring civilization. For more information on the NSS and our future in space, visit http://www.nss.org/.


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