Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Sad, Stunning Week for NASA

Short of the International Space Station making a sudden unplanned reentry and landing on Washington, this week couldn't possibly get worse for NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. That might be the only thought that's keeping him sane right now.

Some of this is just bad timing, with a computer sabotage report coming on the heels of the post-Lisa-Nowack astronaut medical policy evaluation and a GAO report on NASA's problems keeping track of inventory, but none of it is excusable.

Taking the GAO report first, it is fair to ask how NASA's competence at keeping track of office equipment compares to other agencies. I suspect some would love to have NASA's loss rate, which someone writing to NASAWatch estimated at about 1/4 of 1 percent of inventory. I suppose I have to give bonus points for imagination to the guy who reported his NASA-owned laptop had been shipped to the ISS and dumped overboard to burn up in the atmosphere.

The report that a subcontractor deliberately cut wires on three computers destined for the ISS is bizarre. We'll have to wait and see what kind of explanation investigators come up with. (The computers in question are Boeing-built External Wireless Instrumentation System Network Control Units (EWIS NCU)). The subcontractor has not been named (individually or by company).

The real bombshell, NASA's reporting that alcohol-impaired astronauts were allowed to fly on two occasions, is just stunning. OK, people in any tight-knit group tend to cover for each other a little. But if - IF - NASA actually let impaired people board a spacecraft, heads should roll from top to bottom of the agency. (I should add that the report said they were allowed to "fly" but it did not specify what the astronauts were flying on - the incidents could have involved Shuttle flights, but also might have been Soyuz capsules or T-38 training aircraft. "Scuttlebutt" is that these two incidents did not concern the Shuttle, but we'll have to wait for official elaboration - if it comes - on that point.)

In addition to the two "flying impaired" incidents, though, NASA is reporting there were other cases when astronauts violated the 12-hour rule (no alcohol within 12 hours before a flight of any kind) but were not described as being impaired. Regardless of impairment, any violation of the 12-hour "bottle to throttle" rule will get a military or commercial pilot grounded and otherwise seriously punished.

No astronauts, dates, or flights have yet been officially named in any of these cases, and it's not certain they will be. Whatever the details, the headlines have already done the damage. This kind of blot on NASA's record will take years to overcome.

Other items on the front page of Keith Cowing's invaluable NASAWatch site as of 7/26/07 include an employee embezzling $150K from NASA, more squabbles about the agency's budget, and, from outside NASA, a report of three people killed in a rocket test explosion at Scaled Composites in Mojave, CA.

Memo to Keith: Maybe it's a day to drape the site in black. It's a bad day for all of us who believe in space exploration and think of NASA as one of the key actors in carrying out the best aspirations of the human race.

In sadness,
Matt Bille

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