NASA IG: Hanley Removal Broke No Employment Rules

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NASA officials acted in accordance with federal employment rules and laws in reassigning the agency’s Constellation program manager, Jeffrey Hanley, who was outspoken in his opposition to White House plans to terminate the 5-year-old hardware development effort, the NASA inspector general has concluded.

In a letter to U.S. lawmakers dated July 13, NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin said Hanley never claimed he was retaliated against and that there was no evidence that his removal was an “unlawful reprisal” for his views. “Further, we found no evidence that Hanley’s reassignment was undertaken to preclude Congress from undertaking ‘meaningful alternatives’ to the Administration’s FY 2011 budget plan for NASA,” Martin said in the letter, which was addressed to Sens. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The two lawmakers had requested an investigation into the firing of Hanley, who informed colleagues in a May 26 e-mail that he had been removed from Constellation, an effort to develop the rockets, capsules and other hardware to replace the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle and eventually take astronauts back to the lunar surface. U.S. President Barack Obama in February unveiled plans to terminate Constellation in favor of a new strategy featuring reliance on commercial vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the space station and development of enabling technologies for exploration of various deep space destinations.

The Obama plan has encountered heavy congressional opposition, particularly from lawmakers whose districts would be affected by Constellation’s cancellation. In a letter requesting the investigation, Rockefeller and Hutchison asked Martin to review the circumstances of Hanley’s reassignment and whether it was connected in any way to his “well-publicized efforts to preserve the Constellation Program, consistent with Congressional enactments.”

Congress approved the Constellation program in two separate NASA authorization bills. Moreover, lawmakers passed legislation late last year barring NASA from terminating any elements of Constellation pending congressional approval.

According to the Martin, Doug Cooke, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, made the decision to reassign Hanley “with the concurrence of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden … after Hanley sent a series of e-mails to senior NASA officials that caused them to conclude that he could not effectively lead Constellation during a period when the President was seeking to cancel the program in the face of significant congressional opposition.”

Martin said that in one of those e-mails, sent to Bolden following an all-hands meeting at Johnson Space Center in Houston April 28, Hanley said, “Walking away so lightly from a focused concerted effort to explore in our lifetimes should be reconsidered” and that “to not hear our story, directly, and to hear NASA leadership and administration officials further spread the spin and accusations of others without giving us a chance to rebutt [sic] or respond, does not align with the core values you recited to us today.”

In his interviews with the Office of the Inspector General, Bolden characterized Hanley’s e-mail as “inappropriate” and said that “under normal circumstances” he would have removed Hanley as Constellation manager but he decided against doing so after concluding that Hanley was acting out of “frustration” over the decision to terminate a program he had managed for five years, Martin said in his letter.

The last straw, apparently, was a May 18 e-mail to Cooke in which Hanley said NASA’s moves to slow work on Constellation — NASA had told its contractors to set aside program funding to cover contract termination liabilities — “‘seems in conflict’ with Congressional direction,” Martin said. Cooke disagreed, as did NASA General Counsel Michael Wholley, who said Hanley’s e-mail “contained inaccuracies and created needless ‘litigation risk’” related to NASA and its Constellation contractors, Martin said.

Hanley was replaced as Constellation program manager by his former deputy, L. Dale Thomas. Hanley’s new position, which like the Constellation job resides at Johnson, is associate director of core capabilities, responsible for retaining the center’s human spaceflight capabilities as Constellation is phased out.