One of the more controversial decisions that NASA has made in the last six months has had nothing to do with the Space Launch System, Commercial Crew Development, or James Webb Space Telescope programs. Instead, it was the agency’s decision, announced April 12, on where the shuttle orbiters will be displayed upon retirement. The decision in particular to transfer the orbiter Enterprise to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City and put Endeavour on display in Los Angeles was met with strong criticism, even anger, in Dayton, Ohio, and Houston, where many thought they were victims of a politically-motivated decision that ignored the merits of putting shuttles on display in those cities.
Yesterday, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report of its investigation of the decisionmaking process, finding no evidence of political influence from the White House or elsewhere on the selection decision. “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,” the report’s summary states. “Moreover, we found no attempt by White House officials to direct or influence Bolden’s decision making.”
The report did find an error with the selection process: a “cut and paste” error in compiling scores used to judge the various proposals that caused the National Museum of the Air Force to lose five points in the final summary of scores. That extra five points would have put the Dayton museum into a tie with the Intrepid and Kennedy Space Center. However, Bolden told OIG officials that even if that error had not been made, he would have still made the same selection decision. The reason: the day before the announcement NASA contacted various facilities to confirm their interest in receiving an orbiter, and found out that the Air Force Museum “did not believe they would be able to secure the $28.8 million necessary to pay NASA for a flown Orbiter.”
This report, while clearing NASA of any political meddling in its decisionmaking process, did little to assuage those denied an orbiter. An AP article about the decision with the headline “Report: NASA made right picks for retired shuttles” was retitled by a Houston TV station as “Bolden Overrode Retired Shuttles Decision”. That was based on a passage in the report where, in 2009, Bolden rejected a recommendation by a NASA team to award orbiters only to NASA facilities (KSC, Houston, and the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville), saying that he preferred that “the Agency choose locations where the Orbiters would be seen by the largest number of visitors and thus serve NASA’s goal of expanding outreach and education efforts to spur interest in science, technology, and space exploration.”
Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), whose district includes JSC, remained critical of the selection process in a statement yesterday. “It is patently evident from this IG report that Administrator Bolden sought and implemented a plan that would deliberately exclude ties to the shuttle program program [sic] and therefore remove Houston from the equation,” he said, saying the agency was “focusing on access to international visitors over Americans whose tax dollars paid for every single shuttle.” While Houston did score poorly on international visitors, the proposal also suffered from low attendance as well as facility availability and transportation risk factors.
Ohio wasn’t any happier with the report. “NASA may have followed the law when awarding the shuttles, but it is still guilty of incredibly bad judgment,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in a statement, while taking credit for working to ensure the Dayton museum would be in the running for an orbiter. Both Brown and Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) were, like Rep. Olson, critical of the international visitors factor in the ranking, as Dayton also scored poorly on that factor. “They are now putting a stronger emphasis on international tourism over American families and that is wrong,” Austria said in a statement. “Unfortunately, NASA has decided to take our national treasures and make them tourist attractions in large cities, rather than preserving the flight of the shuttles by placing one of them right here in the birthplace of aviation.”
One interesting aspect of the report is that while the report indicated there was no political influence on the selection process, there was political influence on the selection announcement. NASA had been prepared to announce the selected sites back in July, 2010, but when agency officials contacted the White House to inform the administration of their plans, “the White House asked Bolden to consider delaying the announcement out of concern that a negative reaction from key members of Congress might interfere with ongoing negotiations over NASA’s budget and authorization bills,” the report states. NASA officials concluded that the summer of 2010 “was not the right time for NASA to announce the Orbiter placement decision”; in particular, Rep. Bart Gordon, then-chairman of the House Science Committee, was concerned it would upset negotiations on the NASA authorization act then under consideration, and even cause Congress to take the decision out of the agency’s hands. That led NASA to wait until after the authorization bill was passed and, then, scheduling the decision on the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle launch.