NASA Nearly Crashed the Vomit Comet on a Reckless Trip to Greenland
Multiple crew members objected to unsafe and frivolous uses of NASA’s famous zero gravity plane, according to documents obtained using the Freedom of Information Act.
NASA's infamous "Vomit Comet" zero gravity airplane briefly served as a delivery plane for the Navy and a private company owned by an ex astronaut, which some of the plane's crew members who filed formal complaints felt was a misuse of the craft, according to documents obtained by Motherboard.
The unorthodox use of the C-9 aircraft was driven, according to the complaints, by a desire at the high levels of the agency to prove the Vomit Comet was of practical use. Apparently, it didn't work—the C-9 aircraft program was defunded and shut down in 2014.
Since 1959, NASA has used a variety of aircraft to simulate the weightlessness of space in order to train astronauts and perform basic experiments in zero gravity. From 2005 to 2014, the C-9, built in 1970, became one of NASA's primary Vomit Comets. According to documents uncovered by Motherboard using the Freedom of Information Act (embedded at the bottom of this article) show that the Vomit Comet was used on at least two occasions for purposes other than simulating space flight, while still labeling the missions "crew training." In 2013, the agency officially looked into having the plane reclassified to run these types of missions.
In the first instance, NASA officials pressured the crew to transport a giant wooden engine from Houston to Costa Rica as a favor to a former astronaut, according to two of the crew members. Although the mission was successful, NASA seemed to deliberately avoid publicizing the flight.
On another occasion that year, the crew was asked to deliver Navy cargo to Greenland even though members of the crew said the trip was unsafe, resulting in a "near fatal crash," according to documents from a NASA Inspector General investigation. Despite conducting an investigation, the agency says it never reviewed a video that was taken of the incident, and never contacted one of the crew members who was deemed the "principal witness."
Both of these incidents were dismissed by NASA's Inspector General and were never made public. Nearly all names on the documents are redacted and NASA would not give me a crew manifest for either flight—If you know anything more about these flights, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Near Tragedy in Greenland
At one time, NASA's Vomit Comets made flights four days a week. But in recent years, due to a deemphasis on crewed missions at the perennially underfunded space agency, the Vomit Comet had begun to sit idle. In 2012, the aircraft was barely being used.
In order to justify that the rarely-used C-9 still had a purpose in NASA's fleet, the agency asked it to deliver Navy cargo to Thule, Greenland on March 7, 2012. According to one crew member, NASA was looking for a "business case" for flying the airplane.
The plane, manufactured in 1970, wasn't equipped for an Arctic mission and nearly crashed when it took off from Greenland after delivering the cargo, according to written statements from two members of the crew.
NASA confirmed to me that it never reviewed any video before dismissing the complaint
NASA received two separate complaints involving this flight, which is important for keeping timelines straight (and it's why the next three graphs will seem out of order—more on what allegedly happened on the flight in a moment).
Soon after the flight, NASA received the first official complaint about the incident from one of the C-9's crew members. This initial complaint primarily focused on the later Costa Rica flight, but mentioned the Greenland flight and named another "principal witness" that NASA should speak to about the Greenland mission. NASA conducted a safety review that found no wrongdoing, but never spoke to the witness mentioned.
The first complaint was enough to spur an inquiry from NASA's Aviation Safety office, which concluded that "The C-9 aircraft was suited for this cargo mission and that no manual flight limitations were exceeded, and no regulations were broken."
After the investigation had already been closed, a second crew member filed an official complaint asking why he—apparently the "principal witness" from the first complaint—had never been contacted by the Inspector General nor by the Aviation Safety office. He also alleged that his speaking out about the flight through internal channels had gotten him fired.
"I have knowledge of a video that documents the near fatal crash of the C-9 aircraft at Thule, Greenland," that crew member told NASA in an email. "Since I have lost so much in trying to bring these abuses to light and since I am the principal witness in both [the Costa Rica and Greenland flights], I am perplexed as to why I have not been contacted."
"There had been intense pressure to complete this mission to provide a business case for keeping the airplane," his official complaint filed with NASA's Inspector General said. According to that complaint, it was "a mission for which [the plane] was wholly unsuited. The airplane and crew were nearly lost as a result."
The plane, according to that complaint, didn't have instruments that would make it capable of navigating that far north, and also wasn't supposed to be flown in weather that at times hit "north of 73 degrees north latitude." Thule is located at 76 degrees north latitude, meaning the plane apparently "was forced to fly over 150 nautical miles over Arctic ice with a surface temperature of -50 degrees C."
The plane allegedly suffered numerous mechanical problems while it was on the ground in the cold temperatures, and its takeoff was nearly tragic: "Due to the icy runway, the winds, and the obstructed vision [redacted] attempted to call off the return flight and wait for better weather conditions, but was overruled by [redacted]," the inspector general's interview writeup with the crew member said. "They were almost killed while trying to take off after unloading in Greenland."
At the time, NASA's C-9 had to be flown once every 45 days in order to keep the crew's training current. The program was being operated on a shoestring budget and crew members were required to get 36 hours of training each year.
"NASA is not inclined to publicize the flight"
"Pilots need to fly regularly to stay proficient. But when it comes to what they do with it, well you have to decide where the plane goes," Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee and founder of the NASA Watch news site told me. "They always have it go somewhere instead of just in a circle. What you've encountered here is NASA saying, 'Well if the plane has to fly somewhere, why don't we just …' and you can fill in the blanks. But there are limits to where it should be going."
NASA's Inspector General interviewed the second crew member, but decided not to ask for his video or ask for another safety review. "The related complaint was already investigated," the Inspector General's office concluded.
NASA confirmed to me that it never reviewed any video before dismissing the complaint: "We did not receive or view the video referred to by the witness you quote, and do not know whether such a video actually exists," a spokesperson for NASA's Office of the Inspector General told me. NASA headquarters told me it "does not have a video of the alleged incident."
How a Wooden Engine Flew to Costa Rica
In July of 2012, about four months after the Greenland flight, NASA also flew the C-9 on an unorthodox cargo mission—this time to the Ad Astra space company in Costa Rica.
Ad Astra, which is owned by former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz, has a "Space Act Agreement" with NASA, for the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket(VASIMR) engine, an electric space propulsion system. The Space Act Agreement says that NASA can provide development guidance for Ad Astra, but doesn't include any funding for the company. The cargo was a large wooden engine mockup that was designed to show the size of the VASIMR engine.
This flight was again called a "training mission," and NASA was not paid for the flight. The Greenland flight was cited as precedent for the Vomit Comet's use as a cargo vessel.
According to the Inspector General's report, high-level NASA administrators made a last-minute alteration of NASA's agreement with Ad Astra to allowed the free transport of commercial cargo.
Diaz went to space with current NASA administrator Charles Bolden in 1986 on the Space Shuttle Columbia. Members of the crew alleged in the complaints that Diaz's personal connection to Bolden led to a "wink wink" agreement between the top levels of NASA and Diaz, the implication being that NASA would not have done this favor for another other company.
"If the above details are proven true, this is a gross violation of government and NASA policy. NASA is not in the business of providing free shipment for private companies"
In this instance, a copilot of the C-9 expressed concerns with the flight before it happened. The pilot suggested that the crew should get experience actually flying, well, zero-gravity training missions instead of cargo delivery ones.
A later interview with someone overseeing the use of the C-9 suggested that the earlier Greenland flight had "consumed a good deal" of the crew's overall training time, and the crew was anxious to fly the parabolic zero gravity training missions the aircraft was designed for.
"This flight is listed as a training flight to Costa Rica. I think it would be hard to justify 12 + hours of flight time (out of our budget of 36 hrs for the year) on one flight to an international destination for training," the copilot wrote in an email to, presumably, one of his superiors. "We would be better served to use those hours to complete 6 flights to the zero g track for training of current and future crews."
NASA's original agreement with Ad Astra didn't specify that NASA would deliver cargo to the company for free, but high-level NASA officials really wanted this delivery to happen. Associate administrator William Gerstenmaier altered the Space Act Agreement between NASA and Ad Astra a few weeks before the flight to officially authorize it. The change was reviewed by others in the agency.
"'Someone at Headquarters' changed the verbiage 'in the middle of the night' of the Space Act Agreement he had created covering the trip to list the the trip as a 'training flight,'" the copilot's official complaint, which was filed after the flight, read. "International flights are not the norm and in the period of budget austerity of the past few years could hardly be justified … if the above details are proven true, this is a gross violation of government and NASA policy. NASA is not in the business of providing free shipment for private companies."
Keith Cowing of NASA Watch says that, considering the C-9 was barely being used, it would have made much more financial sense to sell the plane and outsource cargo delivery missions, or to rent a plane on the rare occasions when the agency needed to mail something. The walls of the Vomit Comet are padded and meant for human experiments and training, after all—not cargo shipping.
"Space Act Agreements don't usually include anything about using government aircraft for overtly shipping cargo," Cowing said. "This isn't something that's specifically called for very often, and best I can tell NASA is just using this plane to ship something instead of getting FedEX to do it."
NASA says that the flight cost taxpayers about $75,000, but other figures cited in the documents range up to $350,000.
"NASA carefully evaluates use of our aerial assets for transport needs of oversized space and aviation hardware between NASA centers or to and from vendor sites," NASA headquarters told me. "The delicate nature of spaceflight hardware, International Traffic in Arms Regulations and Export Control concerns frequently require NASA or Department of Defense airlift as opposed to procuring commercially available vendor options (i.e. DHL, Federal Express, United Parcel Service, et. al)."
NASA declined to say if a wooden mockup of an engine would fall under International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
NASA also worked to keep details of the Costa Rican flight secret. According to the Inspector General report, a local newspaper in Costa Rica ran a story about the delivery. Based on that story, the State Department wanted to promote the delivery on its Facebook page. NASA told the State Department that "Hardware delivery was coincident to the training flight. As such, NASA is not inclined to publicize the flight."
The woman responsible for approving Gerstenmaier's edit to the Space Act Agreement (her name is redacted) originally noted that she "did not get any pressure from Headquarters or anyone else to make this agreement." She then followed up a second time and said "she was wrong when she stated she felt no pressure to to approve the agreement. She stated that [her superiors] had pressured her."
The Inspector General's report determined that there was "insufficient evidence" that any violation occurred, and so it closed the case. Two years later, the C-9 program was shut down entirely, though there are few details available about why it was canceled.
For what it's worth, Bolden participated in a "Workshop on Human Space Technology" in Costa Rica with Diaz last month. NASA told me it was a personal trip, but would not tell me if Bolden took any NASA employees with him, if he used any NASA funds, and would not provide a transcript of his remarks at the workshop.
"The Administrator traveled to Costa Rica to attend a reunion of his space shuttle mission STS-61C crew and was not on official NASA business," NASA told me.
The documents do not, by themselves, prove any NASA wrongdoing. But there's enough smoke here to suggest that more went on behind the scenes. To recap: Two crew members allege that they were, against their professional judgment, asked in one case to fly a mission to the Arctic Circle in an old airplane that wasn't equipped for the job. One of the crew members says he was fired for speaking up, and NASA admits it never bothered to ask for a video of a "near fatal crash" involving the crew. In another case, they allege that they were asked to run an errand for an ex astronaut friend of the NASA commissioner. NASA then specifically asked public affairs not to talk about the mission publicly.
We're hoping that some of these documents will jog some memories and we hope to learn more about the circumstances surrounding both of these flights. You can email me at email@example.com.