February 18, 2013
A pair of powerful Republican congressional committee chairmen with NASA oversight have highlighted a growing schism in U.S. space policy with their public charge that a senior NASA manager failed to protect sensitive U.S. defense technology being adapted for civil use. In suggesting that “political pressure may be a factor” in a Justice Department decision not to issue criminal charges in the case, they are raising the stakes in an ongoing debate about the proper roles of government and the private sector in space exploration.
The official in question, Ames Research Center Director Simon P. “Pete” Worden, vehemently denies he has been lax in protecting technology covered by International Trade in Armaments Regulations (ITAR), and says he has never been approached by federal law enforcement officials about the matter.
But Worden and his supporters epitomize the “new space” approach adopted by the Obama administration, including freewheeling efforts to promote innovation, international outreach and open-handed transfer of technology developed at taxpayer expense to the private sector. In the process, they have drawn sharp criticism from some whose interests and experience follow a more traditional line, including the drafters of an unsubstantiated but highly detailed whistleblower document that has circulated on Capitol Hill for months.
The 55-page document charges that Worden has allowed unauthorized foreign nationals access to ITAR-protected technology, including Chinese engineers attending an International Space University session at Ames in 2009, and has favored idealistic young staffers from other nations at the expense of national security.
Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who chair a key House Appropriations subcommittee and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, respectively, drew on the whistleblower charges in joint letters to FBI Director Robert Mueller and Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, dated Feb. 8.
Regarding a federal criminal investigation into the “alleged illegal transfer of ITAR-controlled technology by individuals at the NASA Ames Research Center,” the lawmakers wrote: “It is our understanding that this illegal technology transfer may have involved classified Defense Department weapons system technology to foreign countries, including China, potentially with the tacit or direct approval of the center's leadership.”
According to sources at Ames and on Capitol Hill, the technology in question includes propulsion and other systems originally developed for missile defense applications that was adapted for civil spacecraft, including a robotic lunar lander prototype and NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (Ladee), now entering thermal vacuum test at Ames.