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Feb 21, 7:45 PM

NASA gets $50 million for shuttle investigation

By Frank Oliveri

Congress and President Bush set aside $50 million to help NASA pay for its investigation of the shuttle Columbia disaster.

President Bush signed an omnibus bill into law Thursday. Congress added the money shortly after the loss of Columbia on Feb. 1.

The money may be used to cover the costs of the investigation and also costs related to correcting problems with the shuttle or pay other unforeseen costs.

The law recognizes also that costs could exceed the $50 million and allows for NASA to seek additional funding.

The amount was set based on the general cost required to investigate the Challenger disaster of 1986.

"We do not have a contingency for this," NASA Comptroller Steve Isakowitz said. "It doesn't represent an estimate from NASA."

The overall cost of the investigation is unclear, but three other issues remain in limbo from a budgeting standpoint:

  • The recommendations that come out of the investigation.

  • How the investigation affects the space station program.

  • Whether NASA should build a new shuttle to replace Columbia or build an orbital space plane, which would serve as the follow-on to the shuttle.

    "We need to have higher confidence to get to orbit," he said.

    NASA built shuttle Endeavour to replace Challenger at a cost of $1.7 billion. Isakowitz did not know how much a new shuttle orbiter might cost today. NASA's proposed 2004 budget would accelerate spending on a new orbital space plane that ultimately could replace the shuttle fleet.

    The spending blueprint called for $550 million for the space plane program in the coming fiscal year.

    Isakowitz said it could take years to find all of Columbia's pieces, scattered possibly over several states. He said also it was unclear whether Columbia's investigation will be quicker or slower than Challenger. The Rogers Commission's investigation of Challenger was completed in six months, but it took more than two-and-a-half years before another shuttle flew.

    Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Tallahassee, initiated discussion about including additional money for the Columbia investigation. Nelson approached senior Senate appropriators considering an omnibus bill -- 11 appropriations bills wrapped into one -- between the House and Senate, urging them to include funds so NASA wouldn't be forced to raid already depleted shuttle funds.

    "I said just use as a benchmark the fact that it cost $75 million to do the investigation for Challenger," he said. "We need to jumpstart NASA now to ensure we have this robustly handled." As for replacing the lost shuttle, Nelson said he'd prefer to see an accelerated effort to develop the orbital space plane.

    Regardless of whether to build a shuttle or space plane, the investigation should have only a marginal affect on plans to extend the life of the shuttles, Isakowitz said. In 2004, NASA plans to spend about $379 million, $1.7 billion over five years, to keep the shuttle flying through the next decade and beyond, Isakowitz said.

    Last month, NASA launched a shuttle service life extension program summit that will prioritize shuttle needs, spanning people, spacecraft and buildings and equipment. The summit will be led by retired Air Force Major General Michael C. Kostelnik, who was appointed as deputy associate administrator for International Space Station and space shuttle last year. Whatever comes out of the Columbia investigation should be included in results from the summit, Isakowitz said.

    Nelson said, however, that NASA hasn't gone far enough.

    "They ought to get all of the safety upgrades for the shuttle started," Nelson said.

    He said NASA is only funding some safety upgrades right now. The problem, Nelson said, was getting President Bush to make the request. When it was suggested such a move would be expensive, and asked if Congress would support it, Nelson said:

    "Congress will come up with the funds because Congress does not want safety to suffer."


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  • > Back to Columbia Lost index
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    Final CAIB report
    Interactive graphics:

    :: Board faults NASA culture, foam for Columbia tragedy
    :: Harsh evaluation may prompt change at NASA
    :: Shuttle deemed safe -- with care
    :: Foam hitting orbiter nothing new
    Fixes involve more than foam
    Better analysis needed for critical flaws
    :: Age makes maintenance more difficult
    Where can the shuttle land?
    NASA must fix KSC neglect
    Orbiters require intense inspection
    Poor decisions sealed fate
    Confusion hinders photo effort
    Rescue attempt 'feasible'
    :: Goldin's budgets aided disaster
    :: Panelist praises space workers
    :: Board faults shuttle safety program
    :: Columbia probe costs taxpayers $454 million
    :: Memories of fallen crew grow stronger with time

    :: Economy weathers tragedy
    :: Shuttle fleet's grounding taints tourism
    :: Media circus may add to next crew's tensions
    :: 'Do we go forward?'
    :: NASA quiet on cost to fly shuttle again
    :: Station safe . . . for now
    :: Safety concerns dog ISS partnership
    :: Columbia lifted imagination

    Other infographics:
    :: History of Russia in space
    :: Columbia's storied history
    Editorial content:
    :: Course correction
    :: Is NASA really on the road to recovery?
    :: A challenge for humanity to dare greatly again
    :: Continued reliance on the shuttle fleet limits endeavors in space
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