IG: NASA Broke Law, Appointed Foxes to Oversee Orion Henhouse

NASA\'s Orion Spacecraft

The NASA Inspector General released a blistering report on Monday claiming that the agency broke the law when it created a key advisory board for its Orion lunar program and stocked it full of advisers who were employed by and stockholders in the companies they are supposed to oversee.

“NASA did not establish the Orion SRB [Standing Review Board] in accordance with Federal law or NASA guidance,” the report’s Executive Summary reads. “The Orion SRB meets the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) definition of an advisory committee. Although FACA committees must be established in accordance with FACA and NASA Policy Directive (NPD) 1150.11, ‘Federal Advisory Committee Act Committees,’ September 22, 2004, the Orion SRB was not.

“Had NASA initially recognized the Orion SRB as an advisory committee subject to FACA, NASA’s ethics process associated with advisory committee participation would have been triggered, resulting in a focus on board member independence and conflict of interest resolution. Aside from these considerations, independence is a requirement for SRB participation; however, of the 19 members of the Orion SRB, 6 (32 percent) were not independent of the Orion Project.”

The SRB’s chairman, former Skylab astronaut Edward Gibson, is a senior vice president and stockholder in Orion contractor SAIC, as is fellow member and former NASA flight director Neil Hutchinson, the Associated Press reports. Another unidentified SRB member works for SAIC.

“A former top NASA official, Jack Garman, works for and owns stock in Lockheed Martin, the prime builder of Orion with a $4.3 billion contract. Two other board members work for contractors MEI Technologies of Houston and Gray Research Inc. of Huntsville, Ala,” the AP reported.

The IG recommended that the six members be suspended “until an evaluation of the legality and propriety of the participation of these individuals in the SRB is concluded.” It also found that Gison’s efforts to have created a “firewall” between himself and his employer were insufficient to maintain his independence.

NASA Associate Administrator Scott Pace responded that SRB is not subject to FACA or its tight conflict-of-interest regulations. The agency refused to suspend the six members. Pace says that:

  • SRB doesn’t actually function as a collective board; instead, its members render individual judgments;
  • the board members judgments are “pre-decisional,” meaning they are not guiding NASA’s decisions about the Orion program;
  • the pre-decisional nature of the recommendations means that the board’s actions are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act;
  • NASA management is reviewing the SRB’s rules and making appropriate changes.

The IG labeled these answers “nonresponsive.” It said NASA is using the recommendations to make decisions about the Orion project. The SRB does not and has never functioned as a forum for individual opinions. The IG didn’t see how it could effectively function in that manner.

New York University Professor Paul Light, an expert in government ethics, told the AP that NASA’s acts are “a flagrant abuse and Congress should investigate. Not only is NASA ready to challenge the laws of physics, it appears more than willing to challenge the laws of Congress.”

This is the second ethics controversy NASA has experienced in the last four months. In December, the space agency announced a two-year delay in a Mars spacecraft because of a conflict of interest on an advisory board choosing a contractor. NASA refused to elaborate.