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NASA inspector's shuttle checks questioned

Former NASA inspector Billy T. Thornton has been accused of lying about inspecting crucial parts on the space shuttle Discovery before and after the Columbia disaster.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A former NASA inspector has been accused of lying about inspecting crucial parts on the space shuttle Discovery before and after the Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts and grounded the entire orbiter fleet.

Billy T. Thornton falsified records about 83 Discovery inspections over nine days from Oct. 24, 2002, to May 14, 2003, according to a federal indictment unsealed Tuesday.  NASA fired him in September 2003.

The former National Aeronautics and Space Administration quality-assurance specialist was responsible for checking that contractors completed work on electronics and other components considered necessary for safe flight.

On Dec. 13, 2002, Thornton was charged with signing off on 65 inspections of Discovery's interior structure without entering the orbiter to check repairs by the civilian contractor, United Space Alliance.

Each was classified as a "criticality one" inspection.  That means that the part being inspected doesn't have a backup system and could destroy the shuttle and its crew if it fails.

Thornton, 54, declined to comment Tuesday. His lawyer, Kepler Funk, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

"Mr. Thornton has been a long-standing employee up there and is known as a guy who dots his i's and crosses his t's," Funk said.  "Mr. Thornton considers working on the shuttle a privilege and an honor, not merely a job to go to every day."

Thornton was charged with 83 counts of fraud involving space-vehicle parts. Each charge carries up to $500,000 in fines and 15 years in prison.  Another 83 counts charge him with filing a false statement, and each carries up to 5 years in prison.

During his 15-year career, Thornton inspected the entire shuttle fleet.  The Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry Feb. 1, 2003, killing all on board.  Discovery is supposed to be the first shuttle to be launched since the disaster.

The independent board that investigated the Columbia accident did not find evidence that poor quality inspections contributed to the tragedy.  But the board did suggest that NASA re-inspect many critical parts, and bolster inspections, especially at Kennedy Space Center.

Since the allegations were made against Thornton, other inspectors have reviewed the areas he was responsible for, NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham said.  Thornton was supposed to inspect the work being done during the major maintenance overhaul for Discovery.

Agents of NASA's Inspector General's Office arrested Thornton at his home late Monday. Arraignment was scheduled for Friday.

At Thornton's first court appearance Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Hinshelwood told U.S. Magistrate James G. Glazebrook that Thornton rejected an offer several weeks ago to plead guilty to one count of fraud involving space-vehicle parts.