ISS National Lab: Sloppiness and Personal Bias

Keith's note: I registered to attend the ISS National Laboratory Cooperative Agreement Notice (CAN) Public Day event on 10 December 2010. As I did, I was asked for a "point of contact" without any explanation as who that would be. Since I had already posted all of my information (address, email, phone etc.) I was not certain what else to add. At NASA "point of contact" usually refers to someone at NASA. The only "contact" I have per se is PAO, so I listed Bob Jacobs and registered as "NASA Watch".

The stated goals of this event were: "i. To promote competition on the planned ISS National Laboratory Management Organization Cooperative Agreement Notice; ii. To describe the Government's current vision and objectives pertaining to use of the ISS as a national lab; iii. To provide prospective proposers with an opportunity to submit questions and comments in writing via email or in person. The Government will respond in writing to all written questions submitted by posting them to the NAIS and the ISS National Laboratory website."

No prohibition on attendees, who can ask questions, etc. was listed in any material released by NASA prior to this event. I showed up at the event to discover that despite the adamant statements that only registered attendees could attend that anyone could walk in off the street. Several people later told me that this is exactly what they did. NASA later posted some half-answers as to why they violated their own registration requirements.

As the meeting started, Mark Uhran asked if any media or legislative representatives were present. I raised my hand. He then said that no media or legislative questions would be allowed and that only "interested parties" could ask questions. Well, I was an "interested party" I had one question to ask - regardless of what my name badge said - about the role of STEM education in this whole National Lab activity. I had been interested in this CAN from a media stand point (I own several space media companies) but I am also on the board of Directors of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Since Uhran had banned media questions I thought I'd ask the same question wearing one of my other hats.

When it came time for questions I went to the microphone. Uhran ignored me (it happens a lot, I am used to it) and allowed several other people to ask questions - even when I was the only one with my hand in the air at one point. When I started to wave my arm a bit he said in a rather snotty tone "you do understand that there are no media questions". I said that I did and before I could say anything else Uhran cut me off and tried to prevent me from speaking or identifying myself. When I protested he let me speak and I identified myself as a member of the Challenger Board. He said "do you have an interest in bidding" and I said "yes". I then asked my question about the role of STEM education organizations in this activity.

Once again, there was no formal procurement specification that any taxpayer would be prohibited from asking a question. Yet Uhran decided - with no advance warning - to create that rule after people had arrived at the event. When I stood up and was eventually allowed to speak I identified myself not as media but as a representative of a non-profit organization. I adhered to Uhran's new rule. Yet Uhran singled me out - and did so based upon my registration. Moreover he scrutinized my acceptability to ask a question and singled me out in a way that no other attendee was queried. No one else as asked if they were an "interested party" or if the "were interested in bidding". Uhran said later by email "You registered as NASAwatch. What did you expect? This is hard enough as is without your persistent cheap shots online via NASAwatch and twitter. It's easy to be a critic. Try doing something positive."

Newsflash, Mark: the Challenger Center stuff I do is "doing something positive", so I am told.

During the event Uhran stated that this meeting was being "recorded". I found out later that it was not recorded at all, despite his statement - even though there were cameras and digital audio recorders in the room. When the questions asked by the audience were posted at NSPIRES no mention is made of my question related to STEM organizations and their participation in this CAN. I sent a complaint and asked for a revision. I was told one would be made. It has been more than a month and nothing has been done to correct those questions. Accuracy seems to be of minor importance.

Curiously, while Uhran repeatedly sought to prevent me from asking a question (ostensibly because I registered as NASA Watch and not as an acceptable "interested party") Gary Barnhard, the Executive Director of the National Space Society (who said he was representing a private company - see below) was allowed to ask multiple questions - with no query by Uhran as to other possible affiliations Barnhard might have. Later the organizers of the event sent a email out asking those attendees who wished to be listed as interested parties to send contact information. I did. When that list was posted on NSPIRES my name was missing. Yet Gary Barnhard is listed 3 times - once representing NSS, and twice representing two private companies (for disclosure purposes). Cindy Martin from ASGSB (non-profit is listed) and Frank Morring (Aviation Week editor) is listed as well.

I am absolutely certain that Gary Barnhard is doing everything above the board with full transparency to the folks at NSS - indeed Gary has gone into great detail about listing his affiliations. No conflict of issue concerns there. Many non-profits would simply not exist without help from people with "day jobs". The point here is that Uhran allowed a list to go out that openly contradicts the underlying premise by which he sought to prevent me from talking. Someone listed as representing both a non-profit and for-profit companies (as I was clearly doing) can ask questions - and this person and representatives of several non-profits and a aviation journalist can be listed as interested parties. Yet attempts are made to block me from asking a question and I am omitted from an interested parties list where all others are included even though I have been explicit about who and what I was representing. This has me rather baffled. I have submitted some FOIA requests to see what I have been singled out like this. Let's see what they turn up.

I realize that I am obnoxious, hard to deal with, critical of how people at NASA do things, etc. But guess what: Mark Uhran is a civil servant. He works for me and every other taxpayer. When a formal procurement event such as this ISS National Lab CAN Public Day is held - with no restrictions posted in advance as to who can ask questions and interact with government personnel you simply cannot improvise rules after attendees show up and then try to stifle a taxpayer from asking a question. There were a hundred witnesses to this.

From a purely pragmatic angle - one with NASA's own self-interest at heart - if Uhran et al treat a media type who has an avowed editorial interest (and bias) in the the positive value of the ISS, then how are they planning to treat skeptics and opponents? Not well, I have to assume.

Full disclosure. I used to work for Mark Uhran at Space Station Freedom doing utilization work. Indeed, he was at my wedding. I always thought he was rather good at his job, but it seems that he has gotten far too thin-skinned these days. If this is how he runs formal government procurement-related activities for the ISS then there is cause for concern that other biases will manifest themselves at some point. Uhran needs to come up with rules and stick them and not change them in a capricious fashion because he doesn't like what one specific taxpayer has to say. Moreover vis-a-vis the ISS he needs to be placing the nation's best interests ahead of his own.

Go ahead and throw rocks at me, accuse me of having my feelings hurt, playing victim, etc. That said, Mark Uhran should not have behaved this way toward anyone. He disrupted this event - not me. And to date, his management has expressed zero issue with how he behaved. I take this as tacit approval.

The ISS is far too great a national resource to allow sloppy, amateurish management of public events such as this to continue.

Related posts/stories

- NASA's Slow Motion Reluctance To Truly Open Up The ISS
- Where Are Mark Uhran's Five ISS Research Results Papers?, earlier post
- ISS National Lab CAN: NASA's Murky Clarification, earlier post
- The Primary Purpose (Today) of the ISS is Operations, Not Science, earlier post
- NASA: It's Our Space Station - Not Yours, earlier post
- NASA's ISS National Lab Concept: Flawed Plans - Closed Thinking, earlier post
- How NASA Plans to Drag Its Feet in Implementing the ISS National Laboratory, earlier post
- NASA's Not So "Public" Day for ISS National Lab Plans, earlier post
- NASA CAN for ISS National Lab Released, earlier post
- Another Stealth NASA Report, earlier post

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on January 20, 2011 11:03 AM.

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