Video: Study stifled

updated 10/24/2007 8:09:20 PM ET 2007-10-25T00:09:20

NASA's top official expressed regret Wednesday over his agency's stated reason for refusing to make public a survey on air safety problems through the eyes of the nation's pilots. He dismissed any idea that the space agency would put commercial interests ahead of public safety.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin said he disagrees with a senior official's written reason for refusing to turn over the results of the $8.5 million pilot survey to The Associated Press. That official, associate administrator Thomas S. Luedtke, told the AP that the information, if publicized, could undermine public confidence in the airlines and could affect the airlines' profits.

"This rationale was based on case law, but I do not agree with the way it was written," Griffin said in a statement Wednesday. "I regret the impression that NASA was in any way trying to put commercial interests ahead of public safety. That was not and will never be the case."

Griffin's spokesman, David Mould, said the space agency is still evaluating whether the survey results will be made public. A top NASA official flew this week to NASA Ames Research Center in California, where the survey project was conducted, to review the matter. Mould said the decision rests on whether the law requires that it be kept secret, or whether the legal rationale simply was provided as a way to keep it under wraps at the request of agency officials.

The AP had sought to obtain the survey data, which includes 24,000 interviews with commercial and private pilots, over 14 months under the Freedom of Information Act.

Luedtke's final rejection to the AP said: "Release of the requested data, which are sensitive and safety-related, could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers and general aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey."

Among other results, the pilots reported at least twice as many bird strikes, near mid-air collisions and runway incursions as other government monitoring systems show, according to a person familiar with the results who was not authorized to discuss them publicly.

The revelations this week prompted the House Science and Technology Committee to launch an investigation into NASA's decisions, with a public hearing scheduled for next Wednesday.

Griffin's statement came as several other members of Congress turned up the heat, demanding that NASA release information about the survey, which ran for nearly four years before being shut down.

"We need the information for the safety of the flying public," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on space and aeronautics, said Wednesday.

Nelson and committee member Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., wrote to NASA demanding that all records on the project be preserved until the committee issues a formal subpoena for a possible investigation or directs otherwise.

Lawmakers from the House Science and Technology committee also wrote to the contractor that conducted NASA's survey, Battelle Memorial Institute, directing it retain all original documents and copies, after learning that NASA had ordered those documents returned and copies deleted from Battelle's computers.

Battelle spokeswoman Katy Delaney said Wednesday that the directive was in keeping with the company's contract, which is ending this month and had required it to return all related materials to NASA as part of the close-out procedure.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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