NASA takes more than a year to provide shuttle decision documents

After the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chose not to assign a retired space shuttle last year to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the Dayton Daily News filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking NASA to provide documents supporting its decisions on where to send the orbiters.

NASA initially took 13 months to deny in full the newspaper’s request, then partially granted an appeal by providing a package of dozens of essentially identical letters that had been sent to members of Congress, governors and big-city mayors to state reasons for the space agency’s allocation of the orbiters.

NASA capped a two-year process in April 2011 by announcing a decision to assign the Endeavour orbiter to the California Science Center, Los Angeles; Atlantis to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center; Discovery to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., and the full-scale test vehicle Enterprise to New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

The Air Force had requested assignment of an orbiter to the Air Force Museum, reminding NASA that the Air Force had worked closely with NASA from the start on the spacecraft’s design and function.

NASA’s April 2011 letters to political leaders noted that the agency followed terms of a “shuttle retirement plan” that had been submitted to Congress in 2008. NASA said it evaluated the competing sites’ ability to pay the multimillion-dollar cost of transferring the shuttles from NASA to the new homes; options for transporting the orbiters; potential attendance at each site, regional populations and the sites’ access to domestic and international transportation.

Anticipating the likelihood of questions about NASA’s decisions, agency official L. Seth Statler, author of the letters, concluded: “I would be happy to discuss this matter at your request.”

NASA’s decisions angered some officials in states that didn’t get orbiters, including Ohio and Texas.

The documents NASA provided to the Dayton Daily News included a letter from six members of the Ohio House of Representatives expressing disappointment with NASA’s decision not to send an orbiter to the Air Force Museum, which annually draws about 1.3 million visitors to its location on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The base is also home to Huffman Prairie, the field where Wilbur and Orville Wright perfected flying control of their pioneering aircraft.

The Ohio lawmakers asked NASA to provide a “review and cost justification” for its decisions on shuttle assignments. NASA never responded, said state Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, a co-signer of the Ohio letter.

“I was disappointed with their lack of response,” Butler said Friday. “I don’t think that shows any type of respect for the contribution that Ohio has made to aerospace and the space program.”

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, criticized NASA’s decision, in particular the selection of New York City as an orbiter location over Dayton, with its history as the birthplace of aviation.

Brown requested a NASA inspector general’s review of the site selection process. Inspector General Paul Martin said he found that NASA officials’ top priority was to locate the retired spacecraft in places where the most people would have the opportunity to view them. Martin said he found no evidence that the process was tainted by political influence, and he concluded that NASA followed Congress’ direction in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to consider whether the chosen locations had a connection to the human spaceflight program.

The inspector general’s report concluded that a NASA team that scored competing sites in various factors made several errors during the evaluation, including one that would have resulted in a “numerical tie” in the score among the Intrepid Museum, Kennedy (Fla.) Visitor Complex and the Air Force Museum.

NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. said, however, that even if he had known of the tie, he would have made the same decisions about orbiter placements because he believed those locations “will best serve NASA’s goal to spur interest in science, technology and space exploration,” the inspector general wrote in his report.

NASA has since said the Air Force Museum will receive a crew compartment trainer used to train shuttle crews at the Johnson Space Center, Houston. The museum staff expects to receive the trainer unit by early September and develop it into a full-size shuttle display for visitors.

NASA said it identified potentially 2,161 records that could be covered under the Dayton Daily News’ FOI request. In a letter dated July 25, the agency indicated it would consider whether to release any other documents. NASA gave no indication what documents it withheld.

Alex Abdo, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who has often sued the government under the FOI law to force release of documents pertaining to national security, said slow responses from federal agencies are typical.

“It’s unfortunately not uncommon for the government to take a year or more to provide documents to us, in response to our requests,” Abdo said. “We’ve found that, short of a lawsuit, there is little hope of getting documents from the government in a timely manner.”

According to NASA’s website, the agency has a full-time staff of 27 to handle FOI records requests and spent $2.3 million in 2011 to process those requests. It processed 1,131 requests, down from 1,307 the prior year, and ended the most recent year with a backlog of 34 cases, compared with 110 the year before, the agency reported.

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