WASHINGTON – Lawmakers expressed shock and remorse throughout the day after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated as it returned to Earth Saturday morning.
It's a national tragedy," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who as a congressman underwent extensive training and flew with a crew on the 24th space shuttle flight in 1986.
"These courageous astronauts were pioneers in a grand tradition of space exploration whose mission — to improve our lives through unprecedented scientific breakthroughs, life-saving medical research, and building international cooperation — is only accomplished through the heroic commitment of such brave men and women," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was with 150 Democratic lawmakers at a Pennsylvania retreat when they were informed of the disaster shortly after 9 a.m. EST.
"The space program has yielded tremendous scientific advances over the decades and we will continue to be a nation of explorers in the face of tragedy," said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "These bright stars of our space program were aware of the risks that they took by going into space but that did not lessen their commitment to this program. My thoughts and prayers are with them and with their families."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, chairwoman of the Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee of the Commerce Science and Transportation Committee, said that she will immediately conduct hearings to see if budget cuts had forced sacrifices in safety.
Shuttle Columbia had undergone about 50 modifications in its lifetime, including the addition of carbon brakes, improved nose wheel steering and an enhancement of its thermal protection system. It was last refurbished in 1999. This flight was Columbia's 28th mission.
Shortly after Columbia lifted off on Jan. 16, a piece of insulating foam on its external fuel tank came off and was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle. Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, assured reporters on Friday that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no safety hazard.
Safety upgrades, however, remain a major concern for lawmakers, particularly Nelson, who said that he didn't think that delays in safety upgrades contributed to the accident. But he urged NASA to continue the upgrades.
"Safety has got to be the number one concern. At the same time, we have got to realize that space flight is risky business and the ascent and re-entry phase of the space flight is the most dangerous," Nelson said.
"I wouldn't be surprised at all if it's not the computer, which has got to have the angle of the tack coming back into the Earth's atmosphere at exactly the right angle otherwise the space craft will burn up," he added.
Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who recalled the grief Floridians experienced after the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up after launch almost to the day 17 years ago, expressed his condolences to the families of the lost astronauts.
"As a member of Congress, I'll do everything possible to ensure NASA has whatever it needs to prevent this from happening again," Foley said.
Space shuttle Challenger blew up on Jan. 28, 1986. Unsealed "O" rings that protect the solid fuel booster were believed to have caused the explosion. NASA said cold weather also played a part.
After the Challenger accident, NASA created a side hatch that astronauts could have bailed out if there were a problem with the shuttle. Officials said that the escape system was not designed to ensure escape capability under all circumstances.