A government investigator uncovers a RUSSIAN TROIKA of corruption and cover-up at NASA!
by Joseph Richard Gutheinz, Jr., J.D.
Sometimes I catch myself looking up at the sky and remembering. I remember that terrible year, 1997, when I investigated the Russian Mir Space Station fire and crash. I remember warning anyone who would listen that NASA’s relaxed posture towards safety, as evidenced by its incredibly poor decision to remain on the Mir, would set the groundwork for a future disaster.
I believe this disaster occurred in 2003 with the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Like Challenger, Columbia was a disaster that could have been avoided had NASA maintained adherence to proper safety. Now, as NASA returns to space, I believe it is time to tell the true story of NASA’s blunders on the Mir, and its abandonment of safety in favor of operations.
1. Mansions at Star City
In 1997 I was tasked to look into allegations about “mansions” being built in Star City, the American name for the Russian space center located outside Moscow in Zvezdnyy Gorodok. Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., who was Chairman of the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, initiated the investigation. I was relieved to see that my task was in the form of an “investigative lead” from a different NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) Center. An investigative lead usually consists of one or more simple tasks designed to help another agent facilitate his/her case. They are usually knocked out quickly and quietly.
I soon found out that I had jumped into a hornet’s nest that would end with Congressional hearings and the theft of critical evidence. My task had appeared simple enough: I was to interview NASA personnel and others about the existence of million dollar mansions at Star City. We knew the Russian space program was cash-starved, and that controllers at Russia’s Mission Control Center (TsUP) were going as long as six months without pay. Yet, poorly paid Russian bureaucrats were living in mansions in Star City. How?
As Johnson Space Center is the primary center that deals with the Russians, Star City and the TsUP, my lead suddenly blossomed into a full-fledged case. NASA is an awesome place to work; but it is also quite repressive with its rank-and-file employees, causing them to be afraid to talk for fear of losing their jobs.
What I encountered in my interviews with NASA employees was fear: fear of NASA, fear of Russia, and fear of the Russian Mafia. I was told how one person may have been indirectly threatened by the Russian Mafia, not in Russia, but in the United States, and that America did nothing about it. I was informed of a widespread system of bribes taking place at Star City. I was also told that NASA vans had been stolen from Star City and astronauts’ homes had been burglarized there. Even the brick and mortar had been stolen from the astronauts’ cottages in Star City for likely use in the mansions.
In my investigation I also discovered that Russia’s cash flow problems translated into safety issues. For instance, machinery did not receive proper maintenance and electrical systems were not grounded, causing NASA personnel to receive frequent shocks. Some employees also expressed dismay that NASA was paying high-end salaries to Russian cosmonauts working at Johnson Space Center, while also paying Russia for the privilege of having NASA astronauts fly onboard the Mir. In fact, we still do not know if Russia paid the cosmonauts a separate salary in addition to these NASA payments.
2. Fire on board the Mir
On February 23, 1997, a fire broke out in the Kvant 1 Module of the Mir. Because of American astronaut Jerry Linenger’s presence on board, the Mir suddenly became my primary focus. I was investigating the fire on the Mir at the same time NASA bureaucrats were rushing to proclaim the Mir safe. I discovered a network of lies and cover-ups that placed American astronauts’ lives in peril on the Mir, while placing their ground-based colleagues’ careers in jeopardy if they spoke up.
For Russia, the Mir was their final connection to the glory days of the space program under the old Soviet Union. Yet the Soviet Union was gone, and so too was much of the space program infrastructure. NASA’s cost projections for the creation of the International Space Station were contingent upon the Russians doing their part. However, NASA also knew two things: (1) they were prohibited by law from simply giving the Russians money to fund their infrastructure; (2) absent this money, the International Space Program was in jeopardy. So, in my opinion, NASA decided to pay Russians top dollar to fly on the Mir in an effort to funnel much needed money to the Russian space program.
NASA knew the Russians routinely withheld information from them but such was life when dealing with the Russians. One thing we learned in this investigation was that this was not the first fire aboard Mir. The Russians had almost succeeded in covering up a previous fire on October 15, 1994.
The Russians lied to the world with respect to the February 23, 1997 fire. They told us that the fire lasted ninety seconds and was no big deal. NASA passed on their fable. However, astronaut Jerry Linenger wrote a report revealing that the fire had lasted fourteen minutes when a six-foot flame erupted from the Solid Fuel Oxygen Generator. The fire could not be extinguished but had to go out naturally. For the following twelve hours, the Russians did not even tell NASA employees stationed at the TsUP about the fire until pressed to do so by a suspicious and alert member of the NASA ground crew. Because Jerry Linenger’s report had to be processed through the TsUP, the Russians held it up for days.
Furthermore, in order to put out this flame, we subsequently learned, the crew had to aim the extinguishers at the bulkhead to avoid a breach and resultant loss of life. One of the fire extinguishers was bolted down and could not be used, and at least one portable breathing apparatus did not function correctly. Because of clutter, wires and cables, the hatch could not be closed quickly. Comments were conveyed that Jerry Linenger was not trained to escape in the attached Soyuz on his own, and that the Russians would rather have died than abandon the Mir. The Russian Cosmonauts aboard the Mir were universally described as hard working, courageous and patriotic.
In the months that followed, I listened to one NASA official after another voicing support for the Mir, while I learned of problems with corrosion (including the aluminum hull), numerous power outages, broken hardware and faulty software, problems with the oxygen system, and drinking water contaminated with high levels of nickel.
It irritated many at NASA that I, as a criminal investigator, was investigating these problems. Because the issues, though serious, were primarily administrative in nature, a few months into my case Inspectors from NASA’s OIG Inspections Division took over the lead. I was assigned as the criminal investigative member of that team. NASA OIG Inspectors were specialists from a number of different fields, but they were administrative, not criminal, investigators. Suddenly, there were several people looking at the Mir from NASA OIG, and I was glad to see the change. I knew I would never be authorized to arrest a Russian bureaucrat for lying to NASA, and safety was the real issue here.
On the day I was finalizing my report, June 25, 1997, a Progress resupply ship collided with the Mir, which generated yet another phase of the OIG investigation. This time NASA Astronaut Michael Foale was on board the Mir. A similar near collision had occurred two months earlier, and there had been at least one hard contact prior to that.
I had heard reports of NASA management telling employees not to cooperate with the OIG and also that NASA managers had briefed and debriefed employees before and after each OIG interview. Later, I learned that NASA Inspectors had been denied entry to a Blue Ribbon Safety meeting on the Mir. Special Agents and Inspectors have different styles: Special Agents demand cooperation and Inspectors ask for it. I was now supporting an Inspector driven investigation. “That’s fine,” I thought, “I don’t like it, but that’s fine.” However, I had a few loud words to say about the situation before I took a philosophical perspective.
3. Stolen NASA Tapes
On July 18, 1997, a revelation came to light that would cause yet another investigation to commence, this one criminal. Thirty-seven Pre-Launch Assessment Review (PAR) tapes had been stolen from Bldg 9NW at Johnson Space Center. This theft transpired from a locked room, number 2150. The theft was only discovered after the tapes were requested for the Mir investigation. I was assigned to conduct the investigation into the disappearance of these tapes.
I was not the person who initially requested the tapes and at the time was wholly unfamiliar with their significance. I learned that prior to each launch there are three meetings involving Safety Reliability and Quality Assurance personnel who are telephonically linked to several centers, including Headquarters, Marshall, Kennedy and Johnson. Each telephone conference is taped and the lone tape from each meeting is kept at Johnson, in room 2150. The tapes are permanently maintained because of a safety improvement instituted after the Challenger disaster, when safety issues about the “O” rings were raised but not adequately dealt with. Never before had any tapes been reported missing.
I learned that the only people known to have gained unauthorized access to room 2150 were a group of Russians, but no one followed up on this breach in security to see who they were and how they had gained access. In addition, there was a gap of at least four days from when the tapes were found missing, on July 14, 1997, to when the theft was reported to the OIG, on July 18, 1997. This made it very difficult to recover the tapes and discover who was responsible. I had my suspicions, so I decided to find out what was on the tapes that made them susceptible to theft.
In my subsequent investigation I found out that in the entire history of the PAR meetings only two stood out. One of these meetings was prior to the collision of the Progress into the Mir and the other was after. These two June 1997 meetings were highly contentious and addressed the Mir, which some in attendance believed was an “accident waiting to happen.” The tapes of these two meetings were among the missing 37 tapes.
The first meeting was about the fire, the lack of candor by the Russians, and the deplorable safety and operational conditions of the Mir. The second meeting was about the Progress collision and how the Mir should have been abandoned due to the loss of atmosphere. In fact, it had taken those on board twenty minutes to close the hatch leading to the Spektr rather than the three minutes the Russians told NASA it would take. The hatch took so long to close because the cables and tubes running through the hatch had to be cut or otherwise removed.
The allegation that the Russians would rather die than abandon the Mir was later echoed in a Reuter’s story (dated August 16, 1997, “Former Commander Defends Performance”), in which Mir Commander Vasily Tsliyev stated: “After the accident the crew risked their lives by sealing off the punctured Spektr module rather than abandoning ship. … We didn’t think about jumping ship, although in principle at that time we were obliged to throw aside everything and race to the escape capsule.”
The cause of the collision was that a manual docking had been required due to a systems breakdown on the Mir. After the collision the problems on the Mir continued to alarm the world as the Mir would, on occasion, literally spin out of control or operate on reduced life support. However, NASA management was not dissuaded. Despite the fact that the Spektr module was closed up and science experiments were now difficult to impossible to conduct—NASA’s stated reason for being on the Mir—NASA subsequently sent David Wolf and Andy Thomas to tours of duty on the Mir.
Thankfully no one died on the Mir due to NASA’s recklessness, but on February 1, 2003, NASA’s luck ran out with the Columbia disaster, which many believe could have been avoided.
Bridis, Ted “NASA Employee Proposed ‘Complete Scrub” of Website After Columbia Disaster,” AP, Aug. 28, 2003. (www.friends-partners.org/pipermail/fpspace/2003-August/009267.html)
Dunn, Marcia “Spacewalk Will Be Riskiest Yet,” CBS News, June 24, 2004. (www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/06/24/tech/main626035.shtml)
Gutheinz, Joseph “In Search of the Goodwill Moon Rocks,” Geotimes. Nov. 2004. (www.geotimes.org/nov04/trends.html)
Gutheinz, Joseph “Marketing an Asteroid Threat,” Geotimes. March, 2005. (www.geotimes.org/mar05/comment.html)
Levin, Alan “Some question NASA experts’ objectivity,” Feb. 2003. (www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2003-02-06-space-investigate-usat_x.htm)
©2005 Joseph Richard Gutheinz, Jr., J.D. Mr. Gutheinz is a retired Senior Special Agent with NASA’s Office of Inspector General, Criminal Investigations Division. The only Special Agent to earn the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, he currently teaches at the University of Phoenix and Alvin Community College. His past articles include, “In Search of the Goodwill Moon Rocks” and “Marketing an Asteroid Threat,” both published in Geotimes; “Building 265,” published in UFO Magazine; and “The Great Astronaut Impersonator,” published in Hard Evidence Magazine.