A board set up to review construction of the spaceship to return astronauts to the moon is loaded with employees of the very contractors they are supposed to scrutinize, breaking federal law, a government watchdog says.
The board chairman, former Skylab astronaut Ed Gibson, and five other members work for companies hired by NASA on the multibillion-dollar space shuttle replacement program.
The NASA inspector general, the agency's in-house watchdog, calls that a conflict of interest and recommends suspending the six board members.
NASA contends that in the specialized field of aerospace, most of the experts either work for NASA or its contractors. The agency regularly has to deal with this on review boards, said NASA spokesman David Steitz.
The board was set up to oversee NASA's new Orion crew capsule project, but not the moon rocket that sits under the capsule. Plans call for astronauts to return to the moon by 2020 and the Orion would take them there.
The board consists of 19 members charged with providing "independent" assessments of the project designed by NASA but built by private firms. However, nearly one-third of them work for those firms. Four of the six contractor employees were also stockholders in companies making money off the NASA project.
The conflicts include two powerful space and defense contractors: Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) of San Diego and Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md.
Gibson and former NASA flight director Neil Hutchinson are vice presidents and stockholders of SAIC, which has a $51.4 million contract for Orion test facilities. Another board member is an SAIC employee. 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 of Huntsville, Ala.
In a response from NASA in the report, Scott Pace, an associate administrator, said there is no need to suspend or replace the board members in conflict. Pace said the standards for the board's independence are being rewritten. The inspector general's office called that response "nonresponsive."
An expert on government ethics said the conflict was "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," said New York University professor Paul Light.
House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said he believes "NASA will take whatever steps are required to eliminate any conflicts of interest."
This is not just bureaucratic nitpicking, Light said. Independent oversight is crucial and that means separate from the contractors NASA uses so often, he said. He pointed out that NASA lost a $125 million Mars probe in 1999 because a contractor, Lockheed Martin, used English measurements while NASA had been using metric measurements for years.
In a NASA self-assessment of any potential conflict of interest, Gibson wrote that there is no conflict between him and SAIC where he is an officer. He said SAIC provides only technical services and that he created a "firewall" between him and SAIC's work on Orion; he said he is barred from discussing Orion work with company employees. SAIC did not have any comment.
However, the inspector general auditors wrote that these assurances were not "adequate to remedy his independence impairment."
This is the second major conflict of interest problem NASA has had with a board recent months. Last December, NASA announced it was delaying by two years its planned half-billion-dollar 2011 unmanned probe to Mars. because of an unspecified conflict of interest in the board formed to pick a contractor.