Shuttle Safety Hearing
Earlier this year, NASA transferred $190 million from the Space Shuttle program to pay for cost overruns associated with the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). On Wednesday, October 1, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) chaired a House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics hearing to examine potential safety issues related to the funding transfer. Few members were in attendance due to a late session the previous evening.
According to testimony provided by Allen Li, Associate Director at the General Accounting Office (GAO), the transfer of money "did not adversely impact current or near-term upgrade [shuttle] projects." Had the transfer not occurred, he said NASA would have had a $600 million budget carryover at the end of 1997.
Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Chairman of the Science Committee, briefly attended the hearing. In an opening statement, he expressed concern that NASA is "changing its tune" on what it costs to operate the Shuttle. Last spring, he said NASA claimed it needed every penny for the Shuttle program to meet its obligations. But now there is a huge carryover balance, which means the agency grossly misstated its earlier funding request. Sensenbrenner said NASA's inconsistent statements for Shuttle program funding undercut the agency's credibility, and he said in no uncertain terms, "I want it to stop."
Rohrabacher accused NASA of raiding the Shuttle "cookie jar" to pay for space station cost overruns. He said NASA should not request more funding than it actually needs for Shuttle operations. The California representative stated he would rather allocate the excess funds to other space transportation programs (i.e. RLVs) than use them to "bail out" the station.
Congressman Tim Roemer (D-IN) expressed worry about "cannibalizing" NASA's programs to pay for the space station.
Wilbur Trafton, NASA Associate Administrator for the Office of Human Space Flight, testified that NASA does not expect to generate additional large savings in the Shuttle program during the next few years. Still, he said, NASA is looking to transfer another $50 million from the Shuttle account to the space station in FY 1998.
According to Trafton, the Shuttle program and ISS are "joined at the hip." Transferring Shuttle funds to keep the station on schedule, he argued, is basically a safety issue. If construction of the station is delayed due to a shortage of funds, the number of annual Shuttle flights would likely drop below five, which he claims would impair safety. According to NASA, it must fly the Shuttle at the minimum rate of five to six flights per year to "maintain a safe and proficient workforce." The NSS questions this argument, because NASA could fly other Shuttle missions -- such as SpaceHab to support space commerce or the Wake Shield -- to maintain a minimum number of flights.
James Adamson, CEO of the United Space Alliance (USA), also testified, saying "USA expects to be operating the Shuttle well into the next century...." This week, USA is delivering a draft "Shuttle Privatization Development Plan" to NASA, which proposes to privatize the Shuttle by the year 2002. USA wants to fly commercial payloads on the Shuttle.
"By increasing the flight rate and spreading the fixed operating cost over a larger number of flights per year, the incremental cost per flight could be significantly reduced," Adamson said. He cautioned that "as our Shuttle fleet matures, the risk of hardware obsolescence and loss of original suppliers will naturally increase."
According to NASA, Shuttle upgrades are necessary to improve system safety, combat obsolescence, improve reliability, and reduce system operating costs. Currently funded Shuttle upgrades include an alternative high pressure turbopump, super lightweight fuel tank, large throat main combustion chamber (to reduce operation temperatures and pressure), and a multifunctional electronic display system.
Due to the transfer of Shuttle funds to the space station account, some upgrades have been delayed, but none that are safety related. According to GAO, "NASA has identified about 70 potential modifications to the Shuttle with an estimated cost of $5 billion to $7 billion....Over 30 upgrades with an estimated total cost of about $322 million have already been approved for implementation or study."
At the end of the hearing, Rohrabacher fired a cannon shot across NASA's bow. He strongly stated that NASA should not be looking to upgrade the Shuttle as a means to send humans to Mars. Before resources are expended to this purpose, he said Congress must first authorize such a mission. Rohrabacher said NASA should only be considering upgrades to the Shuttle for safety purposes and not as a back door means to mount a Mars mission.
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