updated 5/10/2005 1:34:28 PM ET 2005-05-10T17:34:28

Several Kennedy Space Center technicians testified Monday that a former NASA safety inspector accused of falsifying exams of parts on the space shuttle Discovery failed to check their work.

Billy Thomas Thornton, a 15-year veteran, is charged with lying about inspections he should have done on the Discovery from October 2002 to May 2003 — a span during which the shuttle Columbia blew apart during re-entry, killing seven astronauts. His trial opened Monday.

Thornton was indicted on 83 counts of fraud — with each charge carrying up to 15 years in prison — and 83 counts of filing a false statement, each punishable by up to five years. He was fired in September 2003.

Defense attorneys have argued that Thornton did his job as a quality-assurance specialist, responsible for checking that contractors completed work on electronics and other components considered necessary for safe flight.

Though several technicians testified that Thornton never checked their work and that a log book showed Thornton hadn’t signed in to visit the orbiter, defense attorney Kepler Funk said Thornton often performed the work after technicians had left.

“Sometimes people don’t sign in,” Funk said. “That doesn’t mean the work wasn’t done.”

According to the federal indictment, Thornton falsified inspections that were to take place on nine days over the six-month period. Each inspection was classified as “criticality one,” meaning the inspected part has no backup and could destroy the shuttle if it fails.

Since the allegations against Thornton arose, other inspectors have reviewed the areas for which Thornton was responsible, NASA has said.

Discovery is scheduled to be the first shuttle sent back into space after the fleet was grounded because of the 2003 Columbia accident; the launch date is set for mid-July.

NASA pushed back the launch date in April after last-minute analyses suggested that ice falling off the fuel tank could prove as catastrophic as the chunk of foam that damaged Columbia’s wing and led to the spacecraft’s destruction two years ago.

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