NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said yesterday that the space shuttle should be ready for launch July 13 despite the agency's failure to fully comply with safety recommendations made in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster.
"At this point we must say that we have reduced the level of risk . . . to an acceptable level, or we must say that we don't want to fly the shuttle again," Griffin said. "We believe [safety improvements] have reduced the risk to a level that is consistent with other risks of flying the shuttle."
Speaking before the House Science Committee at a hearing on NASA's future, Griffin also said the Bush administration "very shortly" will seek to amend a 2000 law that blocks the United States from purchasing Russian technology for the international space station after April 2006.
Without such a change to the Iran Nonproliferation Act, the United States would not be able to keep astronauts aboard the space station because the station crew is ferried back and forth by Russian Soyuz spacecraft and must keep one Soyuz on-station as a "lifeboat" in case of an emergency.
Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) released a June 27 letter to him signed by Griffin and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledging that the administration was vetting a proposed amendment seeking a "balanced approach" that would both maintain the U.S.-Russia space partnership while allaying concerns about Russian transfers of nuclear technology to Iran.
Griffin, in his first appearance before the panel since his confirmation 21/2 months ago, enjoyed a two-hour exchange with lawmakers eager to give him a bipartisan vote of confidence even as he disarmed them with his bluntness:
"I'm not happy with that answer," Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) said with a wry grimace after Griffin said he would not increase the funding priority for microbiology and electronics research aboard the space station. "But it was an answer."
Griffin and NASA engineers have signaled for several weeks that the shuttle team has done as much as it can to comply with safety recommendations, including modifications to the shuttle's external fuel tank so it would not shed a large chunk of ice or foam insulation, like the one that doomed Columbia on reentry Feb. 1, 2003.
On Monday, the independent Return to Flight Task Group refused to call NASA's efforts on three recommendations a success, despite acknowledging that the agency greatly reduced the chance of a catastrophic casualty and noting that the shuttle could fly with acceptable risk.
Griffin, without referring directly to the task group's findings, confirmed yesterday that the shuttle Discovery is "ready to go," pending results of a critical readiness inspection this week. "We have tremendously reduced the amount of debris which will be shed by the external tank compared to all prior shuttle missions," he said.
There was no indication whether Griffin's popularity with lawmakers had encouraged the administration to seek the amendment to the nonproliferation law, which forbids the United States from buying anything from Russia for the space station unless the president certifies that Russia is not exporting nuclear, chemical or biological warfare technology to Iran.
An agreement for Russia to provide free Soyuz spacecraft and launch services expires next year, and Congress has long been lobbying for the Bush administration to seek a solution. Otherwise, Griffin agreed, "the only approach we could take is to cease buying" Russian spacecraft, making it impossible to keep U.S. astronauts on the station.
Concern in Congress about Iran's nuclear aspirations has only deepened over the last five years, but the panel welcomed action from the White House, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a senior Science Committee member and author of the space station restrictions, suggested yesterday that holding the U.S. space program hostage to the 2000 law may no longer make sense:
"I will say it was a worthy effort at the time [to] pressure the Russians not to build a nuclear plant in Iran," Rohrabacher said. "Unfortunately, it has not worked. Now we've got this decision to make."