Hearing :: 12/2/2009 :: Ensuring the Safety of Human Space Flight

Opening Statement By Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords


Good morning. This morning’s hearing is the latest in a series of hearings that this subcommittee is holding on critical issues that the White House and Congress need to consider as decisions are made on the future direction and funding for NASA. In many ways, the topic of today’s hearing is one of the most important issues confronting us—namely, how to ensure the safety of those brave men and women whom the nation sends into space to explore and push back the boundaries of the space frontier. Of course, I am under no illusions that human spaceflight can ever be made risk-free. Nothing in life is.

 
The Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger and Columbia fatal accidents, as well as other space flight incidents that could have led to loss of life, have driven that point home in stark and tragic terms. Indeed, this subcommittee is holding today’s hearing because we need to be sure that any decisions being contemplated by the White House and Congress are informed by our best understanding of the fundamental crew safety issuesfacing our human space flight program. And in making those decisions, we should not let either advocacy or unexamined optimism replace probing questions and thoughtful analysis. 
 
That is why the subcommittee has invited this distinguished set of witnesses to appear before us today. We need the benefit of your perspectives and experience as we examine critically important questions that Congress will need to have answered if we are to assess the various proposals that have been put forth.
 
Much has been said about potential future plans for exploration in recent months, but there has been precious little discussion of crew safety Today’s hearing is a first step in rectifying that situation.
 
Let me list just a few of the questions that we would like our witnesses to address today. As several of the witnesses at today’s hearing will testify, the Constellation program strove to respond to the recommendation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that “The design of the system [that replaces the Shuttle] should give overriding priority to crew safety…” The result is a system that is calculated to be significantly safer than the Space Shuttle, and 2 to 3 times safer than the alternative approaches considered by NASA. Given that, we hope to hear from our witnesses as to whether they believe that the burden of proof should be put on those who would propose alternatives to the Constellation program to demonstrate that their systems will be at least as safe as Ares/Orion. Alternatively, do they think it would it be acceptable to reduce the required level of crew safety on commercially provided crew transport services used to transport U.S. astronauts much below what looks to be achievable in the Constellation program? 
 
In addition, we need to hear our witnesses’ views on whether the timetable suggested for the availability of commercial crew transport services is realistic or not.
That is, when one takes into account all of the steps—not just those that are explicitly safety-related—that will need to be taken before the first NASA astronaut can take a ride to the ISS on an operational commercial crew vehicle, do our witnesses believe that such vehicles will be available in time to meet a significant fraction of NASA’s ISS crew transfer and crew rescue needs prior to 2020 or not? Similarly, given those required steps, do our witnesses believe that would-be commercial crew transport services providers will be able to garner sufficient revenues from non-NASA passenger transport services to remain viable over that same time period or not? 
 
It will be difficult to make reasoned judgments about the wisdom of investing significant taxpayer dollars in would-be commercial providers or of altering Congress’s commitment to the existing Constellation program in the absence of clear answers to those questions
 
Finally, what do our witnesses consider to be the most important safety-related issues that will need to be addressed as we make our decisions on the future of NASA’s human space flight and exploration program.
 
And, at the end of the day, what will Congress need to do to have the assurance that we have done all we could to ensure the safety of the nation’s future human space flight activities? That is not a hypothetical question. It is fundamental to fulfilling our responsibilities as Members of Congress. With so much for this subcommittee to consider, I am comforted by the realization that we have a very distinguished panel who can speak with conviction and knowledge about the safety issues that will need to be considered.
 
I want to welcome each of you to today’s hearing. All of us who are passionate about space, whether in the private sector or the public sector, want the best possible future for our nation in its space endeavors. I hope that this morning’s hearing will help us chart a productive and responsible path forward. 
 
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the unique contributions of one of our witnesses to the advancement of safety in human space flight. I want to welcome each of you to today’s hearing. Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, a veteran of the Gemini, Apollo, Apollo-Soyuz, Shuttle Return-to-Flight, and countless other space flight efforts, can speak with authority on safety issues—he has lived them. He is a true national hero. 

So in closing, I know that my colleagues join me in saying that we owe Gen. Stafford and the other pioneers of human space flight a debt of gratitude. Without their efforts—and bravery—NASA would not have made the safety advances that it has.

Subcommittee Quick Links
[technology]  [energy]  [oversight]  [research]  [space]

technology and innovation

energy and environment

Investigations and Oversight

research and science education

space and aeronautics