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Shuttle Report Sparks Discussion In Congress About Future Plans

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

A report citing a “broken safety culture” at NASA has provoked a wide-ranging debate in Congress over the future of the space program, with some lawmakers suggesting that human spaceflight be curtailed and others promoting a broad expansion of space exploration, including a revival of long-shelved plans to send astronauts to Mars.

With Congress set to return next week from its August recess, lawmakers are already planning an ambitious series of hearings on the report, issued Tuesday by an independent panel investigating the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia. The sessions will open a far-ranging discussion of national space policy.

“We are going to have to examine the whole issue of the future of manned space travel, where the emphasis should be, what our priorities are,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, one of two congressional panels planning hearings for next week. He said legislation might result, “depending on what NASA does.”

Aside from correcting the safety problems at NASA as quickly as possible, lawmakers of both parties said their primary goal was to develop a new vision for space exploration, something the panel said has been greatly lacking for decades. Some called on President Bush to articulate his own agenda.

“The Bush administration needs to think out a do-able, yet inspiring set of goals,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees NASA. “We need for the executive branch, as well as the legislative branch, to be trying to reach a consensus on an overall space strategy. We haven’t had it for years.”

In Crawford, Texas, where Bush is vacationing, reporters on Wednesday asked his spokeswoman, Claire Buchan, about the White House’s vision for space exploration. “The president very much believes that space is an important frontier and that the space program should go forward,” Buchan said, without elaborating.

But questions of how the program moves forward, and at what cost, are clearly on the table on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers’ ideas run the gamut.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), wants to establish a new advisory panel to oversee how the new report’s recommendations are carried out. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who is the chairman of the Senate subcommittee overseeing NASA, wants a presidential commission to develop a national space policy.

Brownback warned that competition from the Chinese, who have announced plans to send humans into space later this year, should prod Americans to return to the sense of purpose in the space program’s glory days of the 1960s, when competition from the Russians prodded the United States to put a man on the moon.

And McCain said Congress needed to examine its own conduct, including pork-barrel spending and budget cuts to the agency that may have contributed to the Columbia disaster.

In the House, Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), wants to nearly double NASA’s annual $15 billion budget. Yet Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich) says he thinks the space agency may need to scale back.

“What I want are facts and ideas for the future,” said Ehlers, a physicist, who serves on the oversight subcommittee.