UPI vs. the NASA Spinmeisters
Why Was Spin Necessary In The First Place?

By Steve Russell, TMG News Media Reviewer

March 26, 2000


On March 21, 2000 United Press International (UPI) published an article by James Oberg titled "NASA Knew Mars Polar Lander Doomed". Oberg made numerous accusations against NASA and quoted sources close to a panel investigating the loss of the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) throughout the article.

This has sparked a public response from NASA denying some of these accusations but not all. Upon close examination of the accusations and statements from NASA, there appears to be more to this than meets the eye.

The Accusations

  1. Before the attempted landing, a review board had already identified a fatal design flaw with the braking thrusters and NASA withheld this conclusion from the public.

  2. The MPL braking thrusters had failed acceptance testing during the construction phase. Test conditions were altered until the thrusters passed by an official from middle management without approval.

  3. Tampering of test conditions was uncovered only a few days before landing was to occur on December 3, 1999.

Response from NASA

In a cleverly deceptive response from NASA, Oberg was labelled as a "wacko" and his article "complete nonsense". In seven dot points, NASA categorically denied only the first accusation made by Oberg.

Point five in NASA's response stated, "Based on this review, NASA knew about the concerns with the propulsion system, NASA took corrective action, and NASA hid nothing from the public. We made our concerns known in early November."

NASA did make their concerns public back in November 1999, but these only related to the thrusters, not the validity and accuracy of the testing processes that are in question.

The only truth to the first accusation is that NASA knew about problems with the thrusters. Oberg's mistake is that he did not do his research well enough and relied too much on what his sources were telling him. This allowed NASA to focus the public attention on his corroborative research capabilities and ignore the information that his sources provided.

The majority of the press has only blindly reported the UPI article followed by NASA's response. What must be realised is that NASA has cleverly tricked the public by debunking only one accusation and then resorting to childish name-calling. They have effectively dodged the most important accusations of all.

The important issue here is that somebody in middle management tampered with test procedures to get the thrusters approved. UPI sources told of problems with the thruster testing, not the thrusters themselves.


The Search for Truth

The UPI article came just weeks after a series of federally commissioned reports that collectively criticised NASA for "poor communication and mistakes in engineering and management."

A question raised by New Scientist Magazine at the November 10 Press Briefing asked how the MPL thruster problem was overlooked for so long. The director of NASAs Marshall Space Flight Centre Art Stephenson, responded by saying, "I don't have an answer to that question. We did not go into why it was missed."

The answer to how this problem was missed is explained between the lines of the UPI article and the responses coming from NASA. The tests were supposedly rigged by an individual in middle management without approval. NASA openly admits that failures and poor communication exist among management staff. With these conditions present throughout NASA, the test failures could have easily been covered up.

Damage Control

An independent report on the loss of MPL has been produced by retired aerospace executive Thomas Young. It is to be released to the public on Tuesday. UPI has reported that NASA's own associate administrator for plans has said that the report will be reviewed internally by NASA and then sent to the White House before becoming available to the public.

The Associated Press reported that in a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, NASA's administrator Dan Goldin said the report had not been changed by NASA and that the White House was not involved. UPI then reported that Goldin said the report is being examined by unspecified officials at the White House. He would not provide the Senate with a copy of the same report sent to the White House.

At the White House, officials have been refusing to confirm or deny that they have the report and referred all inquires to NASA. In a letter from NASA to UPI, complaints were made over UPI's failure to provide NASA with a chance to respond to the allegations before publication. After receiving the letter, UPI has repeatedly called NASA offices and been ignored.


Conclusion

Perhaps the NASA sources that provided the information to UPI knew that the report was going to be sent to Washington. This would explain why they felt compelled to leak the information now, before the official public release of the report and before any damage control could be applied.

If the remaining allegations are not proven either true or false in the MPL report, we will know that it has surely been edited.

Steve Russell
TMG News Media Reviewer


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