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NASA Chief: Budget Cuts Not Responsible for Columbia Disaster

The head of the space agency, NASA, says budget cuts did not contribute to the space shuttle Columbia disaster, despite warnings of a watchdog group that a lack of funding might have compromised safety of the shuttle program.

Last year, the former chairman of the independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, Richard Blomberg, warned Congress that he had grave concerns for the safety of the shuttle program due to budget cutbacks.

"I have never been as worried for space shuttle safety as I am right now. All of my instincts suggest that the current approach is planting the seeds for future danger," Mr. Blomberg said.

Mr. Blomberg listed his concerns, including the elimination or deferral of safety improvements in the shuttle program, a reduction in the shuttle workforce and the age of the shuttle fleet. Columbia was 22-years old.

NASA has sustained a 40 percent cut in its budget since 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded moments after lift-off, killing all seven astronauts.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said on the CBS program Face the Nation that NASA would never do anything to compromise safety. "And I think, all the various oversight groups have concurred that the process we go through before each and every launch, during each and every mission, during each and every re-entry is assured that is the case. So, there is no indication whatsoever that there is an individual factor that could have led to this happening at this juncture," he said.

Each shuttle is designed to make 100 flights into outer space. Since the program began in 1981, NASA's space shuttle fleet has made 113 trips.

Also appearing on Face the Nation was Mike Brown, a veteran space shuttle astronaut. Mr. Brown said he never considered money a factor where safety was concerned. "Again, it is not money that makes vehicles like this safe. It is people. The people are dedicated. They are very smart. I also had a high degree of confidence that people [were] doing their absolute best to make the vehicle safe. I mean you could give infinite money to the program and it's not going to buy you total safety," he said.

At least three government agencies and an independent panel are probing the Columbia disaster. For the time being, members of Congress, who decide how much money to give NASA, say they will wait for the findings of the other investigations before deciding whether to conduct their own inquiries.