Thursday, August 25, 2011

Audit Vindicates Orbiter Display Selection Process

An artist's concept of the orbiter Atlantis on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Image source: KSCVC.

An audit by NASA's Office of Inspector General has concluded, "We found no evidence that the Team’s recommendation or the Administrator’s decision were tainted by political influence or any other improper consideration."

While the Administrator was subject to a great deal of pressure from members of Congress and other interested parties, we found no evidence that this pressure had any influence on the Administrator’s ultimate decision on where to place the Orbiters. Moreover, we found no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden’s decision making. We also found that NASA’s process was consistent with applicable Federal law.

After the orbiter display winners were announced on April 12, politicians representing the loser sites responded with threats, smears and demands for investigations. Space Coast represntatives Sandy Adams and Bill Posey co-sponsored legislation that would let Congress dictate where the orbiters would go.

The investigation has concluded their charges were baseless.

The audit did find a mathematical error that would have tied the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio with the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex:

... We found that the Team made several errors during its evaluation process, including one that would have resulted in a numerical “tie” among the Intrepid, the Kennedy Visitor Complex, and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (Air Force Museum) in Dayton, Ohio. Bolden told the OIG that had he been aware of this tie, he would have made the same decision regarding Orbiter placement because he believes the chosen locations will best serve NASA’s goal to spur interest in science, technology, and space exploration.

The report states that Bolden said he would have chosen KSCVC any way because the USAF museum could not commit to their proposed funding.

According to the report, NASA's priorities were:

(1) place the Orbiters where they would be preserved for history and seen by the greatest number of visitors and

(2) save taxpayer dollars by awarding the Orbiters to institutions that were willing to reimburse the Agency for the multi-million dollar cost of preparing them for display and transporting them to their new homes.

As for the widely spread conspiracy theory of a White House plot to deny Houston an orbiter, the report states:

In addition to deflecting pressure from politicians, Bolden told us he also put aside his personal preferences in order to make the best selections for NASA and the Nation. Bolden said that if it had been strictly a personal decision, his preference would have been to place an Orbiter in Houston. He noted that “[a]s a resident of Texas and a person who . . . spent the middle of my Marine Corps career in Houston, I would have loved to have placed an Orbiter in Houston.” However, he said he could not ignore that Space Center Houston had relatively low attendance rates and provided significantly lower international access than the locations selected.

I wrote on July 27 that Houston had submitted its report late, and online samples of its proposal appear vastly inferior to those of other applicants.

The report notes that KSCVC is required to provide $20.5 million in funding for Atlantis by February 2012. The orbiter will be delivered in February 2013 — which of course means little since it's already at KSC. Here's the audit's summary of that project's current status:

NASA selected the Kennedy Visitor Complex for placement of Atlantis. After Atlantis returned from its final mission on July 21, 2011, NASA began the after-mission processing and “safing” preparation activities and plans to complete all processing activities required for display by September 2012. Atlantis will then be stored in Kennedy’s Vehicle Assembly Building until February 2013, with tour-group viewing opportunities during that period. The Visitor Complex is currently negotiating with Kennedy Space Center officials for an additional storage period at a suitable Center facility until the permanent display facility is ready. As currently planned, Atlantis will be moved to its permanent facility in February 2013 and will be ready for permanent display in July 2013. The Visitor Complex plans to display Atlantis in a raised, tilted, horizontal position in its permanent facility. The Visitor Complex submitted its logistics plan on August 5, 2011. The exhibit and finance plans are due by the end of August 2011, and initial funding is due in February 2012.

UPDATE 8:00 PM EDTThe Houston Chronicle reacts to the investigation findings:

Although the report concluded NASA's decision was not politically motivated, some Houstonians remain angry the home of Mission Control was not chosen as a final resting place for one of the four Orbiters. Local officials and congressmen insist NASA and President Barack Obama's administration excluded the Texas city because of the state's Republican leanings.

They pointed to an initial finding in 2009 that determined Houston should get a shuttle. They accused NASA administrator Charles Bolden of deliberately changing the criteria to focus on areas that would attract international tourists rather than those with ties to the program so that he could exclude Houston. They disagree with Bolden's conclusion that Houston and its space center do not get enough international traffic to justify putting a lucrative shuttle in its museum ...

Bolden, who still owns a home in Houston, told NASA investigators that personally he "would have loved to have placed an Orbiter in Houston," but the Space Center Houston had lower attendance and fewer international visitors than the winners.

In Dayton, meanwhile, the Dayton Daily News reacts to the news that the U.S. Air Force Museum tied with KSCVC in the scoring for an orbiter.

Officials in Dayton and Houston, communities that didn’t get shuttles, called for the investigation alleging political influences played a role in site selections. The report found there were no outside influences, including none from the White House. The decision was based on attendance, funding, population and the facility.

“NASA may have followed the law when awarding the shuttles, but it is still guilty of incredibly bad judgment,” U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said.

Brown threatened last April to have Bolden personally investigated because the NASA administrator did not award an orbiter to Brown's state.

UPDATE 8:45 PM EDTThe Washington Post reports on the audit findings.

Space Center Houston, next door to Johnson Space Center, ranked near the bottom of the list. It scored low for attendance, international visitors, museum accreditation and difficulty transporting a shuttle there. Museums in Chicago, Seattle, Riverside, Calif., San Diego and McMinnville, Ore., all scored higher than Houston . . .

After the report was released, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, criticized the selection process.

“It’s clear to me this was rigged from the beginning and it was pretty clear Houston would not receive the orbiter,” he said.

The phrase "sore loser" comes to mind.

UPDATE August 26, 2011Florida Today reports:

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's decision about which cities would get a retired space shuttle was based on a flawed assessment of applications but wasn't tainted by politics, according to a report released Thursday.

Bolden announced where four retired shuttles would go based largely on where they would be viewed by the most people, according to the 27-page report from NASA Inspector General Paul Martin.

But civil servants who reviewed the 29 applications for an orbiter made several mistakes, including one that wasn't caught until after Bolden's announcement, the report said.

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