Shuttle inspector wins court case

by Chris Bergin

A former NASA employee has been acquitted of charges that he failed to properly inspect the labour of contractors working on the space shuttle Discovery. The court case, however, highlighted NASA’s lack of guidelines for inspecting the fleet.
The judge threw out all but four of the charges against Billy Thomas Thornton, after he was found innocent of the remaining counts, two of fraud and two of making a false statement.

Each charge had carried a prison sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of up to $500,000.

The jury heard closing arguments Friday morning and then deliberated just two hours before reaching its verdict.

After federal prosecutors rested their case Thursday, U.S. District Judge Gregory A. Presnell threw out 162 of the 166 counts against Thornton.

The remaining charges involved whether Thornton properly inspected work done on Discovery’s right wing. Prosecutors accused Thornton of failing to check out whether a cavity in the orbiter’s wing was empty before a plate was bolted over it. A bird, lizard, tool or rivet could have fallen in the hole, prosecutor Bruce Hinshelwood said in closing arguments earlier Friday.

“Failure could lead to loss of the orbiter or life,” Hinshelwood said. “It’s a crime because it’s a government mandatory inspection point.”

Discovery is scheduled to be the first shuttle sent back into space following the Columbia accident of Feb. 1, 2003, which killed seven astronauts.

Thornton’s attorney, Kepler Funk, told jurors that Thornton — who was fired by NASA in 2003 — was a tough inspector who antagonized United Space Alliance with his fussiness. If he did anything, it was not follow policy rather than break the law, Funk said.

“He wasn’t afraid to stop jobs and that doesn’t make the contractor, USA, very happy,” Funk said. “What NASA should be doing is thanking him, not prosecuting him.”

Outside the courthouse, jurors said the prosecution had failed to show that Thornton neglected to do his job, and that the trial revealed holes in the way the space agency inspects the work of contractors.

“There was no defined protocol or set of rules for him to follow,” said jury foreman Mark Dean, 45, of Orlando. “(NASA) needs to look at the inspection system, about how they check inspections.”

AP contributed to this report.

Related Articles