NASA administrator Michael Griffin is hinting to lawmakers that he will reverse course and publicly disclose the results of an unprecedented federal aviation survey that found aircraft near-collisions, runway interference and other safety problems occur far more often than previously recognized.
NASA had said it was withholding the information because it feared it would upset air travelers and hurt airline profits. Citing an insider familiar with the research, The Associated Press reported last week on the US$8.5 million survey of some 24,000 pilots.
Griffin was scheduled to testify yesterday on Capitol Hill about the agency's efforts to keep its research secret. In a letter to lawmakers in advance of the hearing, he said Congress can review the project data but that any confidential commercial information must be removed before it can be released publicly.
On Tuesday, Griffin bowed to a request from the lawmakers and sent copies of the raw data -- contained on four CDs -- to the House Science and Technology Committee.
Griffin previously expressed regret over NASA's assertion that revealing the survey findings could damage the public's confidence in airlines and affect airline profits.
"NASA believes that the data contains both confidential commercial data and information that could compromise anonymity that should be redacted prior to public release," Griffin wrote to Congress.
Officials who have worked on the survey, however, have said it contains no pilot names or airline names. The questionnaire asked pilots to state how many times in the previous 60 days they had encountered a wide range of problems with equipment, weather, tower communication and other safety issues.
NASA's efforts to withhold the safety research sparked tough criticism on Capitol Hill and in the editorial pages of dozens of leading newspapers which urged the agency to release its research.
Griffin also has sought to assure lawmakers that NASA will not destroy the research. Earlier this month, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to return any project information and then purge all related data from its computers. Griffin said that was according to the contract NASA had with the company, but that he has rescinded those instructions.
Although NASA is mostly associated with spaceflight, the agency has a long history of aviation safety research. Its experts study atmospheric science and airplane materials and design, among other areas.
The survey project, called National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service, was launched after a White House commission in the late 1990s called for government efforts to significantly reduce fatal aircraft accidents.