WASHINGTON, May 8 (UPI) -- NASA should scrap the space shuttle and spend its money on developing a new transit system, a 19-year veteran of Congress and former shuttle program advocate said Thursday.
"I am not going to vote for any funding for the existing orbiter to go back to space," Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said at a half-day hearing on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's proposed Orbital Space Plane, a crew transport craft.
"It's my opinion that we can't make the existing orbiter as safe as it need to be," said Barton. "I'm not going to just sit by and put Americans at risk every time they go into space. If we had the same accident rate in our commercial aviation industry, thousands of people would be killed every day in this country, and we would not accept it."
Barton said he did not want to go through another investigation "if I'm in Congress six or seven or eight years from now when we have a third orbiter crash and kill another five or six or seven astronauts. I'm just not going to do that."
Fred Gregory, NASA's deputy director and a former astronaut, said the agency was looking at flying the shuttle with just a two-person crew -- a commander and co-pilot. The flight deck would be equipped with an ejection system that the astronauts could use to escape from the orbiter in case of an emergency, such as what occurred during the Feb. 1 breakup of shuttle Columbia while re-entering Earth's atmosphere over the southern United States. Seven astronauts died in NASA's worst accident since the 1986 Challenger tragedy, which also claimed seven lives.
Barton's comments followed an occasionally tense series of exchanges between members of the House subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, and NASA managers who testified about their plans to develop a new vehicle to transport crews to and from the space station.
The so-called Orbital Space Plane is scheduled to become operational as the station's emergency lifeboat by 2010 and ready to ferry crews to the outpost via launch on an expendable rocket in 2012.
Members of the NASA oversight committee, however, were displeased with the lack of details on the project.
"The plan appears to be just another initiative that is long on promises and short on likely results," said subcommittee chairman Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
"It seems to me that NASA has given us a solution ... but it hasn't given us a credible story on what the problem is that we are trying to address," added Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.
(Reported by Irene Brown, UPI Science News, at Cape Canaveral, Fla.)