Let’s hope NASA’s just sloppyDid NASA analyze whatever crashed in a forest outside Kecksburg, Pa., on 12/9/65 or not? After six years of litigation, an extraordinary report by journalist Leslie Kean raises legitimate questions about the space agency’s ability to access its own records.
By Billy Cox
By Billy Cox
Considering how NASA evidently erased its original high-rez footage of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, this isn’t necessarily news. What’s baffling is how — amid all the missing documents, particularly those pertaining to its relationship with the Defense Department concerning the recovery of space debris — NASA apparently can’t keep its stories straight.
With support from the Sci-Fi Channel in 2003, Kean’s Coalition for the Freedom of Information took NASA to court after it responded to her FOIA request for Kecksburg data by saying it had nothing to share. In 2005, NASA spokesman Dave Steitz told the Associated Press its analysts had examined the debris and determined it was a Soviet satellite. “We boxed (the case) up and that was the end of it,” Steitz added. “Unfortunately, the documents supporting those findings were misplaced.”
Not only did that statement contradict NASA’s own position that no space debris entered the atmosphere on 12/5/65, it appeared to confirm the existence of the elusive analysis that provoked the lawsuit in the first place. Even though the Air Force party line maintained nothing fell to Earth that day. In a voice mail at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Steitz said he was out of the office until Monday.
“Why did we have to file suit at all if they knew this all along?” wonders Kean from New York City.
Kean scored a surprising 2007 victory from a federal judge who ordered NASA to conduct a more thorough records search. She exhausted all legal options in August after NASA turned over hundreds of documents, most of them irrelevant or incomplete, and said it was in full compliance. Although she published her report on Monday without gaining any additional insights on Kecksburg, it contained some real head-scratchers. Among them:
In 1996, one Paul Willis, indentified as NASA’s Headquarters Records/Forms Manager, was informed in writing by the National Records Center how the “Fragology Files” he’d requested — detailing the recovery and evaluation of space debris from 1962-67 — had vanished in 1987. In her futile efforts to retrieve those, as well as two boxes of records dealing with NASA’s Pentagon liaisons from 1965-66, Kean was told that Willis had walked out with the material she was asking for, in 1996, and never returned it. She asked if NASA could track Willis down and recover the data, but was informed Willis no longer worked for the government, and that such a request exceeded FOIA requirements.
Did you get that? If you’re a federal employee who takes public property into retirement with you, it’s OK to keep it.
Here’s another little nugget: In 1969, NASA engineer/fragology custodian Richard Schullherr huddled with USAF Project Blue Book official Col. Richard Bagnard in 1969, a meeting that confirmed two Air Force projects to retrieve fallen space objects were underway. “The observable phenomena of reentry were easily recognized and our response in general was to identify the particular decay,” Schullherr wrote. “When a particular decay could not be identified with an observation, we stated that it was a meteorite or a satellite which was not of sufficient importance to warrant tracking by NASA or NORAD.”
In other words, meteors and satellites became the default words for anything that couldn’t be explained or identified. That unofficial policy also surfaced in a 12/10/65 note — written the day after the Kecksburg event — by a USAF major named Howard: “(Blue Book director) Major (Hector) Quintanilla said that it was Ok to call it a meteor that entered the atmosphere. He said that investigation is still under way. There was no space debris which entered the atmosphere on 9 December 1965.”
There’s more. But the bottom line: Kean didn’t get what she was looking for. Maybe NASA conducted a thorough search, or maybe it didn’t. Without any independent oversight — and there isn’t — we’ll probably never know. But she doesn’t fault contemporary NASA personnel. She says they’re understaffed, overworked and swamped by blizzards of FOIA requests. What she’s certain of is that the sunshine system is in frantic need of an overhaul.
“A citizen is supposed to have access to government documents under the law. They shouldn’t need a lawyer to do it,” she says. “I did. And there were moments of frustration and exhaustion. But the fact that an ordinary citizen can go after a federal agency and get the court to make it do its job gives me hope.”
President Obama’s first executive order was to strengthen government transparency. Maybe Kecksburg should be where the rubber hits the road.