February 3, 2006

NASA inspector general probed over safety issues

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NASA's inspector general is accused
of failing to properly respond to safety problems and
retaliating against whistle-blowers, according to an internal
memo he wrote to his employees.

Robert "Moose" Cobb, a former White House lawyer who was
appointed NASA inspector general in 2002, urged workers to
cooperate with an administrative investigation into the matter.

In the e-mail, posted on the SpaceRef.com Web site and
quoted in Friday's Washington Post, Cobb said the President's
Council on Integrity and Efficiency was looking into
allegations that Cobb "failed to investigate violations of
safety concerns" and retaliated against whistle-blowers.

Cobb "is proud of, stands behind and is accountable for the
work of the NASA office of inspector general," said executive
officer Madeline Chulumovich. She said by telephone that the
inspector general's office would cooperate fully with the

Cobb has championed whistle-blowers at the space agency,
saying in a 2004 document: "Reprisal for whistle-blowing is
inimical to the free flow of information and must be protected

In the same document, Cobb said workers who disagree with
their bosses' decisions should take their concerns to higher
levels of management. He noted that failure to do this was a
factor in the fatal breakup of space shuttle Columbia.

Safety has been problematic at NASA, where the human
spaceflight program has been struggling since the February 1,
2003, Columbia disaster, which killed seven astronauts.

That accident, in which the spacecraft disintegrated on
re-entry, was blamed in part on a "broken safety culture" where
the safety concerns of engineers and others were subordinate to
a pre-set launch schedule.

Since then, only one shuttle mission has flown and the
International Space Station has operated with a skeleton crew
of two, with construction of the orbiting outpost at a

At the same time, NASA plans to replace the shuttle fleet
with a new vehicle, and to mount human missions to the Moon and
eventually to Mars as part of a vision for space exploration
articulated by President George W. Bush two years ago.

In documents obtained by The Washington Post and in
interviews, current and former NASA employees said Cobb's
actions had contributed to a lack of attention to safety
problems at the space agency, the newspaper said.

In an interview with the Post, Dennis Coldren, retired
manager of NASA space station and space shuttle audits, was one
of several associates to describe Cobb as a bully.

Coldren also alleged that, just weeks before the Columbia
disaster, Cobb quashed efforts to inquire into canceled funding
to upgrade deteriorating gantries, launch pads and other
shuttle infrastructure.