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Wed, May 11, 2005

Government Witnesses Take The Stand In NASA Inspector Trial

Billy T. Thornton Accused Of Pencil-Whipping Shuttle Inspections

While government witnesses said a NASA inspector falsified inspection results in his work on the space shuttle Discovery, defense lawyers pointed to what they called massive confusion about how those inspections were supposed to be carried out. The trial continues Wednesday in Orlando.

Billy T. Thornton, 54, was accused a year ago of falsifying 83 inspection reports on Discovery between October 2002 and May 2003. Tuesday, NASA supervisors and contractors testified they saw the reports, but never saw Thornton actually perform.

Keith Folsom, a senior aerospace inspector for United Space Alliance (a NASA shuttle contractor) testified Thornton signed off on a shuttle wiring harness inspection in 2002 -- without noticably inspecting anything.

"He just did not go around and look at the [wiring] harnesses that were exposed and open," Folsom testified, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Instead, Folsom said, Thornton was "just basically sitting around" in the shuttle.

But when cross-examined, Folsom admitted he didn't share his concerns about Thornton until well over a year later.

"I thought it was [Thornton's] prerogative to do it however he wanted to," Folsom said. It was only after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003 that Folsom spoke up, he testified. That's when he told NASA officials that "too many inspections" just weren't being done.

When cross-examining government witnesses on Tuesday, defense attorney Alan Diamond consistently asked about confusion over inspection policies at NASA.

"In general, has there been a lot of confusion out at KSC?" Diamond asked NASA quality-assurance supervisor Robert Nagy.

"There has been a lot of interpretation," Nagy said in an exchange quoted by the Sentinel.

Adding to the confusion, Thornton's immediate supervisor, Robert Saulnier, testified the embattled inspector had been the recipient of performance awards in 2001 and 2003. In 2003, Thornton was awarded a $500 performance bonus.

"I did not put him in for that," Saulnier told the court when he was being cross-examined by defense attorney Kepler Funk. He did, however, admit that he had given Thornton an evaluation concluding that his work "meets expectations."

At the same time, Saulnier said he once proposed suspending Thornton for behaving unprofessionally in his dealings with some contractors.



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