Spaceflight Now STS-107

Transcript from White House briefing
Posted: February 3, 2003

Question: Can you give us an idea of what Administrator O'Keefe said to the President? And also in connection with the shuttle, the budget envisions an increase which went to the printer before, obviously, the disaster -- envisions an increase in the shuttle program by 23 percent. Is that the President's way of saying that the shuttle program was underfunded before?

Answer: One, on the funding issue, as you know, funding for the NASA budget total will go from $15 billion in 2003 to $15.5 -- or .469 -- million in Fiscal Year 2004. Funding for the space shuttle itself will go from $3.2 billion to $3.9 billion under the budget, as was proposed this morning, as was prepared prior to the disaster involving the Columbia.

Having said that, I don't know that anybody can make any conclusions about money at this point. The investigation is just beginning. And as Sean O'Keefe said to the President, all causes will be evaluated, all causes. It is vital; this country owes it to the people who lost their lives, to the people who -- families left behind, and to the astronauts who lie ready and waiting to go on their next mission to explore every possible reason why this could havehappened. And I think it's impossible to make any judgments at this point.

So those are the facts of the budget, but I think it's still too soon to say anything.

Question: Well, why the increase? What's the justification for the shuttle program, in particular?

Answer: Well, as Director Daniels walked through at his briefing, there were a series of components inside NASA that involve various aspects of the space shuttle, that all are going to receive the funding designated. The funding for the last decade was relatively flat; in fact, there was a decline over the last decade. And now there is an increase in the funding. The funding for the international space station, as you know, had run into a series of cost overruns; that has been addressed, and the combined total leads to a budget of NASA that is increasing.

But again, this administration is making no conclusions about whether the funding over the last decade or the increase in funding has anything to do with what took place on the Columbia. It would be premature and unwise to make any judgments about that at this time.

Question: The space shuttle program lost a quarter of its fleet on Saturday morning. And if the space shuttle is the vehicle to be relied on for at least the next decade to build the international space station, if the President wants to continue the journey into space, is he at all considering an appropriation to build another shuttle?

Answer: Well, again, it's too soon to say. This just took place. It's very important to work with Congress on this, as well, to hear Congress's thoughts and opinions. It's too soon to say. But it's fair to say, and as the President said in his meeting with Mr. O'Keefe, the President is committed to the future of space exploration. He's committed to the future of the men and women of NASA and the international collaboration that has allowed mankind to explore space to the degrees that we have and the degrees we continue to do so and will do so.

Question: Is it even possible to consider building another shuttle, because the apparatus to manufacture the parts is, to a large degree, been shut down?

Answer: As I indicated, it's too soon to say.

Question: Is there a need or does the President think it's maybe time to look at accelerating the search for another, a new generation of space planes to replace the shuttle, given the age of the fleet?

Answer: Well, again, I'm not going to, two days after the explosion, leap to any conclusions for anybody in the government about what the next steps should be. This has to be a review.

Question: Is that something you think should be looked at?

Answer: Well, I think, first, it's important to allow the independent panel and the internal NASA panel to conduct their investigations. Let's find out what the cause of the accident was before reaching conclusions about what the next course in space exploration should be. But the principal point that I want to emphasize is the President is determined to continue mankind's exploration of space.

Question: Did the President express today to the NASA chief or to anybody else that he wants any words of dissent about -- within the organization about whether -- what kind of damage might have been done to the orbiter, to be out early, or are you content to let this sort of go on at the pace at which it did during the Challenger?

Answer: The President did not dictate the timing of the investigation. That's for the investigators to determine and to make known, as they are doing twice a day in their two news conferences, as events warrant, as facts are developed. That's not a question for the President to exercise any judgment about. He wants the independent investigators to be the ones to make those determinations.

Let me fill you in a little bit on the meeting that the President had. It lasted 45 minutes. Mr. O'Keefe began it by talking about the families of those who lost their lives, the relatives and their well-being now and the care that is being taken for them. The President agreed that that has to be a priority, to make certain that the families are taken care of. He reviewed the chronology -- Mr. O'Keefe reviewed the chronology of events that immediately led up to the disaster and he said that his intention is to get back into space as soon as possible, with all safety issues having been fully -- fully -- explored. And he said that all causes are being evaluated.

The President inquired about the health and the status of the families. He talked and inquired about the morale of NASA. He made note that, amazingly, nobody -- we have received no reports of anybody who was hurt by falling debris, in the entire field in which the debris fell. And both the President and Mr. O'Keefe expressed amazement at that. And obviously, that's one small positive piece of news in this tragedy.

And the President talked about the status of the next crews and the morale of the next crews -- crew -- and how they are ready to go as soon as they are able to go back into space. The President inquired about the children's experiment that was aboard the space shuttle. And finally, the President said to the head of NASA, "You make us proud."

Question: On NASA's funding, it sounds like you all are leaving the door open to an increase in funding for NASA. Not that you are committing yourself to it, but once --

Answer: Well, the President is proposing one in the budget that he sends up today.

Question: It sounds as though you're opening up the door, or at least leaving the door open to the possibility of even more money being sent to NASA after the investigation is done, and if it concludes and you all agree that that is something that's needed?

Answer: Well, Jean, when I indicated at the top -- and today is the day the budget gets sent to the Congress. The process begins today in terms of where the decisions get made in the Congress. And it's important to listen to and work with members of Congress onthis, and in all areas of the budget. As I indicated at the top, I don't think anybody can reach any conclusions about funding levels and the disaster affecting the Colombia. Everything needs to be looked into in order to make determinations, but no one can make any conclusions this quickly after the disaster.

So, as always, the budget goes up, we'll work with members of Congress on it, but the amount that's in the budget is the amount the President thought was necessary. Clearly, now a disaster has taken place, and as the process unfolds it's a healthy process, it's a flexible process and it allows for additional input as events warrant.

Question: So you're not ruling out the idea that the President would support an increase in funding later if, in fact, an investigation and you all agreed that that was necessary?

Answer: No, I'm not addressing it because I think within 48 hours of the disaster is just too soon to address.

Question: When the President met today with the NASA Administrator, Sean O'Keefe, did they discuss the program that will take place tomorrow in Houston, what the participation the President and First Lady will be, will they meet with the families of the victims?

Answer: They did talk about that very briefly. And the program is still being worked through at the staff level, but they did talk about that briefly.

Question: Will the President attempt to try to meet with the families of the victims?

Answer: We'll have all the details of the program as it's final. But, yes, the President will, of course, spend time with the families.

Question: Second question, the President must have been receiving a lot of condolence calls from leaders around the world. I imagine he's taken some and some he hasn't had the time. Can you tell us some of the calls he has received, especially lately?

Answer: Well, over the weekend, we released to you the names of the eight foreign leaders with whom he spoke, so that's a matter of record. I don't know if I brought all eight with me. I know that yesterday he spoke with President's Musharraf and Vajpayee. He's spoken with President Putin. I don't want to go down all the list because I may forget one person or two people. You can take a look at all the information that was released over the course of the weekend; we can provide that to you.

Question: You and others in the administration today said that 48 hours is too soon and that there's suggestion that there's too much discussion as of right now about money. But over the weekend, there were some people, specifically yesterday, on the talk shows, there were members of Congress who did complain about NASA funding. I wonder if you would comment on the fact that some people have suggested that there just hasn't been enough money in the program up to this point.

Answer: I think the President respects the opinions of people who are going to take a look at this and you will likely here a variety of different opinions about it. And the nation has just gone through a tragedy. And in the President's judgment, after a tragedy like this, what's most important is that everybody join together in making certain that we know what happened and why, that no stone be left unturned; and once the cause is determined, that we all, together as Americans, look at what needs to be done next, and do so in a spirit that's marked by the same spirit that NASA has, which is a spirit of working together to get a mission accomplished.

The mission to be accomplished, in this case, is to resume space flight and to continue the marvels of space exploration that have been the hallmark of American pioneerism around the world, particularly the international collaboration that has marked space flight and spacetravel today.

Question: As far as seven astronauts are concerned, prayers were heard throughout India and also here in the United States, throughout all the Hindu temples, including one in Maryland. Ambassador Lalit Mansingh he delivered the message for condolence and he said that India had lost one of her daughters, Ms. Kalpana Chawla. My question is, when the President spoke with Prime Minister Vajpayee, what they spoke, what they said, as far as -- because since India lost one.

Answer: I reported this last night. When the two spoke, they expressed mutual condolences because of the losses. And the Indian astronaut, of course, a hero in India. She was born in India and became an American citizen, and was an example and a roll model to millions in both countries, particularly women. And that summarizes the message.

Question: On the astronauts memorial in Titusville, Florida, the name of Colonel Ilan Ramon of Israel will presumably be included with the other six from the Columbia. And my question: Is the President grateful that in 1981 this officer, as an F-16 pilot, helped demolish Saddam Hussein's nuclear plant at Osirak, near Baghdad?

Answer: I think that many people expressed, after 1991, when the United States realized that, contrary to the intelligence information suggesting that Iraq was years away from the development of a nuclear weapon, they actually were only six months away. Had that mission not taken place at that time, the military mission in 1991 would have been made far, far more difficult. I just leave that as a statement of fact.

Question: Before the disaster of the Columbia, the President increased the funding for the shuttle in his budget. What was he thinking in terms of his goals and priorities for the shuttle program when he put that increase in?

Answer: It's a belief in the importance of the space shuttle mission and the importance of continuing to pursue scientific research and exploration in space. That's why the budgets the President has submitted reflected that.