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US Congress to Review Impact of Budget Cuts on Space Program Safety - 2003-02-04

The chairman of a key Congressional committee that oversees funding for the U.S. space agency, NASA, says no stone will be left unturned in hearings about the space shuttle Columbia disaster. Lawmakers will be looking into whether NASA scrimped on safety due to budget cutbacks.

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert says hearings will begin on February 27, four weeks after Columbia disintegrated while entering Earth's atmosphere, killing seven astronauts.

Congressman Boehlert says lawmakers will consider the full range of issues involving the catastrophe, including allegations that a 40 percent reduction in NASA's budget during the 1990's may have led to safety lapses in the shuttle program.

But in an appearance on the NBC television program The Today Show, Congressman Boehlert said Congress has never refused NASA money for safety.

"We say you must spend at least this much or more," he said. "NASA has often asked us for additional resources. And we have always responded favorably when it has dealt with safety."

Congressman Boehlert was asked about allegations that no one in Congress listened to warnings that cutting corners might make the shuttle program unsafe.

One notable warning came in a statement before Congress last year by the head of NASA's own oversight safety panel, Richard Blomberg.

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

In response, Congressman Boehlert stressed that Mr. Blomberg was talking about future danger within the space shuttle program. But he emphasized the hearings will look carefully at the safety concerns of Mr. Blomberg and others.

"We are going to have to see if we heeded warnings, if NASA heeded warnings of any potential safety problems," he said.

Congressman Boehlert added that he supports continuing to send humans into outer space.