WASHINGTON - After a scathing report on the lapses that led to the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, Republican and Democratic senators on Wednesday pressed the NASA administrator to find those responsible for the disaster and hold them accountable.
But Sean O'Keefe, chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, refused to assign blame. He disparaged demands for what he called "a public display or a public execution or a firing squad that lines up at noon," even as he asserted that a new management team soon would lead the remaining shuttles back to flight.
O'Keefe, who took over NASA barely a year before the Columbia breakup, is seeking to remake the culture within the agency - fast - without demoralizing it.
Lawmakers, on the other hand, are seeking evidence that the $6-billion spent each year on human space flight is not wasted.
"Now they talk about an accident, but it was an avoidable accident," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C. "You talk about failure, but it was an avoidable failure." Hollings, the senior Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees NASA, said a captain of a Navy ship under similar circumstances would be "cashiered."
In the first congressional hearing on the shuttle program since the release of a report last month that faulted safety procedures within the space agency, senators from both parties questioned whether NASA needed a broad shakeup.
"How do you change a culture at an institution without changing the people involved?" said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., adding that it "seems to me that you are talking about major, wholesale changes in personnel within the NASA system."
O'Keefe said 15 or so senior leaders of the space shuttle fleet had been replaced in the months since the Columbia breakup.
"What you see is a management team in place that's different today than it was a year ago, to be sure, and certainly very different than it was seven months ago," O'Keefe told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Pressed by Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the committee, on whether the previous leadership of the shuttle program had been disciplined, O'Keefe said: "The folks who are in positions today will lead in the future and be accountable for this activity. Those who are not there, I think you can draw the conclusion from that."Commission to Congress: Close farming loopholes
WASHINGTON - The Agriculture Department should close loopholes that let some farmers collect excessive subsidies, a commission appointed by Congress said Wednesday.
Keith Collins, the department's chief economist, said the 10-member panel concluded such a move would improve the integrity of farm programs often criticized for providing large payments to big farms.
The department allows people, farm cooperatives or businesses to apply for subsidies. Some might not have a role in operating the farm but can get the payments anyway, allowing the farms they're affiliated with to exceed payment limitations, Collins said.
Collins said the commission's members believed restricting eligibility to those who run the farm "would reduce the incentive to create entities for the purpose of avoiding payment limitations."Elsewhere . . .
7 KILLED IN CRASH: A driver going the wrong way down a Houston area freeway crashed head-on into a sport utility vehicle, killing seven people, including three children.
Five of the SUV's 10 passengers in the Tuesday night crash were children, and none was restrained, said Harris County sheriff's Lt. John Denholm.
BUSH SIGNS FREE-TRADE PACTS: President Bush signed legislation Wednesday to begin free trade with Singapore and Chile, saying that opening world markets is essential for U.S. prosperity and the spread of freedom.
"We support free trade in America because it is vital to the creation of jobs," Bush said.
CLARK A DEMOCRAT: Wesley Clark still won't say definitively whether he will seek the presidency, but the retired Army general finally revealed his political affiliation Wednesday: Democrat.
"As I looked at where the country is now domestically and look at our policies abroad, I have to say that I'm aligned with the Democratic Party, I like the message the party has. I like what it stands for," Clark said in an interview on CNN's Inside Politics.