US Senators Wednesday criticized lack of vision in the US space program but NASA Adminstrator Sean O'Keefe, grilled over the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, expressed determination the program would go on. Democratic and Republican senators alike deplored findings of a report issued in late August investigating February's Columbia disaster. "We are stuck mentally in a low space orbit," said Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, speaking at a hearing of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
The committee focused on a late August report by investigators looking into the Columbia disaster, which stated that the US space agency's culture contributed significantly to the loss of the shuttle.
"I hope you think about creating this presidential commission on the future of space exploration," Brownback told O'Keefe.
Congress can do that, Brownback said, "but it's really the executive branch function, and the report noted that we lack a comprehensive and engaging vision."
In reply to senators' request for a new outline of NASA's objectives for the space program, O'Keefe replied: "We have been pursuing an interagency process designed to articulate the broader US exploration objectives and from that we'll form a range of strategic options.
"The administration has got a strong interest" in the program, he said.
"I have no problem raising an audience over there (in the White House)," O'Keefe said. "I will not preempt the president's option and venues, that should not be confused with indifference."
Brownback said he believed the United States "wants to engage in a discussion of what our vision for space is, not only NASA."
That vision "involves exploration but it's also commercial and military," he said.
An equally frustrated Democrat, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, said: "I believe a society that stops exploring stops progressing. Space exploration has been very important for this country. I want to succeed, I want it to continue."
Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida and himself a former shuttle astronaut, warned O'Keefe against the danger of allowing the administration of President George W. Bush to perpetuate the mistakes and lack of vision of the previous three administrations in continuing to trim the shuttle program budget.
"The cost cutting has been part of the problem," said Nelson. "NASA has been starved of funds over four administrations and it has always been the (White House's) Office of Management and Budget that has said 'nyet' to NASA."
Nelson read from the Columbia disaster report, which said that funds destined to the shuttle program have been cut by 40 percent over the past 10 years.
"I think everybody wants to see our space program to be robust and fulfill that desire of the nation to explore," he said.
O'Keefe later told the committee that NASA will next Monday present a calendar whereby it plans to relaunch space shuttle flights, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The implementation plan "will identify everything that we intend to do, the process we will engage in to implement the findings of the Gehman investigation board, comply with its recommendations," the NASA boss said.
And grilled as to NASA level of determination to see the space flights up and running again, O'Keefe said: "We intend to implement this so that we can do what? Fly!"
O'Keefe did not give a date for the resumption of shuttle flights.
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