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The Orlando Sentinel June 29, 2003

Politics spawned Columbia mission

By Michael Cabbage

WASHINGTON -- Years of political wheeling and dealing helped lead shuttle Columbia to the launchpad in January and shaped its doomed final flight.

Congress gave in to lobbyists and created Columbia's science mission using pork-barrel spending tactics. Deployment of a controversial satellite proposed by then-Vice President Al Gore was added as one of the research flight's objectives.

The mission changed after Republican lawmakers stalled work on the satellite. Then, one of Columbia's seven astronauts, Israeli air force Col. Ilan Ramon, joined the crew as the result of a 1995 deal cut between President Bill Clinton and Israel's prime minister, Shimon Peres.

"One can certainly use this mission as a way of understanding how the shuttle and NASA have as much to do with politics as science," said John Pike, director of the policy-analysis group GlobalSecurity.org. "Anyone who thinks this is mainly about science hasn't spent much time looking at the space program."

Columbia's breakup over Texas on Feb. 1 and the death of its crew have given fresh ammunition to skeptics who question the rationale behind a human-spaceflight program mired in low Earth orbit for the past 30 years.

Critics are urging that human lives and the $3 billion spaceships not be put at risk unless there are clear and compelling reasons for doing so. However, an investigative board chaired by retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman is not expected to address the issue in its final report expected next month.

"What is most disturbing about Admiral Gehman's investigation is that it isn't looking at questions like this -- just what it takes to get the shuttle flying again as soon as possible," said Alex Roland, a history professor at Duke University, former NASA historian and vocal critic of the agency. "Neither the shuttle program or the [international] space station are providing any payoff that justifies the risk of human life or the huge expense."

Birth of a mission

House members created what would become Columbia's final mission in October 1998 during final negotiations on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's fiscal 1999 budget. Lawmakers anonymously added language to the bill at the last minute appropriating $15 million -- an amount far short of the flight's estimated $500 million total price tag -- for "a shuttle mission which accommodates research payloads."

"The original idea was that NASA would fly shuttle science missions, the space station would get ready, and the science would continue on the station," Library of Congress researcher Marcia Smith told Gehman's panel during a June 12 hearing. "But, as the station schedule slipped, there was going to be a long hiatus."

A lobbying campaign launched by Spacehab Inc. drummed up congressional support for the research flight. One NASA manager described the lobbying effort as "intense."

NASA contracts with Spacehab to provide, among other things, the leased laboratory modules that are installed in the shuttle's cargo bay on research missions. NASA paid the company more than $47 million for the onboard lab on Columbia's final flight. Spacehab suffered a $50.3 million loss after the module was destroyed.

"I wouldn't call them intense lobbying efforts," said Spacehab spokeswoman Kimberly Campbell, "but certainly we periodically meet with members of Congress who are interested in what we have to provide."

The tactic Congress used to create the research mission is called earmarking. Lawmakers increasingly have employed the technique in recent years to quietly slip local pet projects into NASA's budget including fisheries, business jets, museum exhibits and gardening studies.

More than $1.7 billion has been siphoned from NASA priorities since 1998 to pay for pork-barrel spending. Those responsible for the earmarks aren't identified in the spending bills, meaning there is little to no accountability.

Several NASA managers contacted by the Orlando Sentinel said the agency never requested money for the research mission aboard Columbia. In fact, none could recall a previous shuttle flight that was created by Congress in this way.


The 1999 budget negotiations also sparked bitter debate about an Earth-observing satellite that was the brainchild of Vice President Gore.

The spacecraft was dubbed Triana after the lookout on Columbus' ship who first spotted the New World in 1492. As initially conceived by Democrat Gore, the satellite would beam back from space images of the sunlit Earth that could be viewed around the clock on the Internet. Republicans labeled the project "Goresat" and "junk science."

After Congress created Columbia's research mission, NASA divided space on the flight between the agency's biological and physical science division and the Office of Earth Science. Launch of Triana was near the top of NASA's Earth-science agenda. It was added to the mission.

The satellite's concept had evolved considerably since Gore first presented the idea to NASA. In an effort to beef up the project's research value, scientists had added instruments to study solar flares, Earth's climate and space weather.

"The rest of the project really was shaped by the scientific community at large," said Ghassem Asrar, NASA's associate administrator for Earth Science.

Republicans still weren't convinced. An audit by NASA's inspector general already had criticized the program for allowing the Gore-inspired part of the mission to circumvent a standard review process. And costs had risen dramatically from the original $50 million estimate after additional science capabilities were added.

With Triana's launch initially planned just weeks before the November 2000 election, Republicans feared presidential candidate Gore might somehow parlay the mission into gains at the ballot box. Lawmakers ordered that all work on Triana stop until the National Academy of Sciences completed an independent review of the project.

The academy's four-month study released in March 2000 found that Triana did, in fact, have scientific merit. The time required for the independent assessment, however, meant it was too late to get Triana ready for Columbia's research flight. The satellite was bumped from the mission in July 2000, delaying Columbia's projected launch date until June 2001.

Today, Triana is gathering dust in a storage container at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Four custodians make sure the $96 million satellite is kept ready in case NASA finds it a ride to orbit. The storage cost for the satellite, recently renamed the Deep Space Climate Observatory, is $1 million per year. There are no launch plans.

"For a lot of us, it was a new thing to be involved in a project so steeped in controversy," said Craig Tooley, Triana's deputy project manager. "It is a little irksome to have a $100 million satellite system that is ready to fly and do valuable science but not know when you are going to launch."

Emptying the closet

The Triana debacle led to one of many schedule slips for Columbia. Ten subsequent delays caused by a variety of factors -- processing issues, repairs to shuttle fuel lines, greater priority for space-station flights -- eventually postponed the launch until Jan. 16, 2003.

The removal of Triana left the shuttle program scrambling to fill the void with backup experiments. In the words of one NASA official, scientists "emptied the closet" at Goddard in an effort to find research projects to fly aboard Columbia.

The Triana team's loss became Israel's gain. One experiment looking for a flight was an Israeli multispectral camera designed to study the effect of dust particles in the atmosphere on global climate and rainfall. The camera and Israel's first astronaut, veteran combat pilot Ramon, were assigned to Columbia in September 2000.

A 5-year-old boy was the inspiration behind Ramon's flight.

Jeremy Issacharoff, the former political counselor at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, had visited the National Air and Space Museum in 1995 with his young son, Dean. Issacharoff was struggling to come up with new initiatives for an upcoming summit meeting between Clinton and Peres.

As Dean walked by a space-shuttle exhibit, he noticed a number of non-U.S. astronauts, including a member of Saudi Arabia's royal family, had flown on the ships. His question -- "Daddy, why isn't there an Israeli astronaut?" -- was the inspiration Issacharoff had been looking for.

"I thought they might think I had gone a bit nuts," Issacharoff, deputy director for strategic affairs at the Israeli foreign ministry in Jerusalem, told the Sentinel last year. "I said, 'My kid had this idea. What do you think?' "

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to the United States, approved the idea a few days before the summit. Clinton announced after meeting with Peres that an Israeli astronaut would fly on a future shuttle mission. NASA and the Israel Space Agency signed a cooperative agreement in 1996.

"Most American presidents have understood how to use the space program as a foreign-policy tool," analyst Pike said. "It's a great way to impress people."

Cost versus benefits

The value of shuttle experiments such as the physics, biology and Earth-science research flown aboard Columbia increasingly has been challenged in recent years.

Critics charge that while the experiments have merit, the returns don't come close to justifying the staggering investment. Some scientists have suggested that much of the shuttle and station research could be done just as effectively on Earth at a fraction of the cost.

NASA officials hotly dispute those claims.

"Some commentators claim dismissively that we don't get any tangible scientific and technological return from our human-spaceflight endeavors," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors convention last Thursday. "That's urban legend number one. On the other hand, some of NASA's most vocal supporters tend to rally around the flag and claim credit for every major technological innovation in modern history."

While similar experiments remain the primary justification for building the $100 billion space station, it's unlikely an entire shuttle flight will be dedicated again to conducting research. A second shuttle research mission -- also created at Spacehab's urging with a $40 million congressional earmark in 2000 -- was canceled. And with only three shuttles remaining, virtually every flight will be needed to finish building and support the space station.

Debates are certain to continue, however, over whether NASA's human-spaceflight goals are worth the money and the risk, and whether politics or science drives the program.

"It's not that there is no value," Roland said, "but the cost is so great and the benefits are so low that this is not the way you should invest your people and scarce resources."

Staff writer Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this report. Michael Cabbage can be reached at mcabbage@orlandosentinel.com or 321-639-0522.

Copyright 2003, Orlando Sentinel