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Orbital Demands Story Retraction

By Keith Cowing
November 10, 2004

10 November 2004: Update: NASA Watch and SpaceRef have come to an amicable resolution to this issue with Orbital – one wherein the threat of legal action has been avoided to the satisfaction of both parties.

From: “David Freeman”
Date: Wed Nov 10, 2004 11:24:54 AM US/Eastern
To: Keith Cowing
Subject: Re: Posted on NASA Watch and on the SpaceRef story

Based upon your subsequent acknowledgement that you did not have direct knowledge, but were relying upon the representations of a NASA employee purportedly familiar with the issues in the DART article of 9 November, Orbital has chosen to forego any suit. Orbital will likely provide you a rebuttal for posting, also a matter upon which you had agreed you would do.

David B. Freeman
VP & Assistant General Counsel
Orbital Sciences Corporation

10 November 2004: Update: The core of this story was based on information provided to me by someone at NASA Headquarters yesterday morning. They contacted me in an official capacity. I did not contact them. They did not request anonymity as they provided this information to me nor did they tell me not to publish it. As such what is in this article is a summation of what a NASA civil servant told me – not things I made up. I was also contacted by an employee of Orbital after the initial version of the article went online. That employee provided me with information I used to update the article. The employee said that I was free to identify him if need be. However I did not identify him out of habit. As such, contrary to Orbital’s email below, I do indeed have a “factual basis for [my] original article”. I have provided contacts for Orbital’s lawyer at NASA and within Orbital to pursue this matter.

9 November 2004: Editor’s note: This email from Orbital’s David Freeman arrived at SpaceRef this evening – after business hours. As such, the person sending the email is not available by phone. Aside from a call from a mid-level employee at Orbital – someone not affiliated with Orbital’s public affairs or legal office – no one has contacted me by phone from Orbital in an official capacity to say which items in this article are true or untrue. Nowhere in Freeman’s email does Orbital specifically admit or deny anything that appears in my story. If Orbital wishes to provide a sentence by sentence rebuttal, I will post it. If my understanding of what “Orbital officials or others have subsequently rebutted” is flawed then perhaps Orbital will tell me what I got wrong. If I am incorrect, I will apologize – and if need be, retract. Please advise.

Now they are going to threaten me with legal action. Any help from NASA Watch readers would be appreciated.

From: David Freeman
Date: Tue Nov 9, 2004 6:35:37 PM US/Eastern
Subject: Feedback Message from SpaceRef Web Site
Name: David Freeman
Subject: Libelous Article Regarding DART Program
Message: Dear Mr. Cowling:

I am an in-house counsel for Orbital Sciences Corporation, and on behalf of Orbital I demand the immediate retraction of your article published at SpaceRef.com, entitled “A DART Near Miss: Infighting at Orbital and Deceiving NASA, and dated Tuesday, November 9, 2004.

The headline is absolutely incorrect and the article is packed with both errors and innuendo. This kind of headlining and unsubstantiated storytelling is irresponsible journalism at its worst, and we expect a full retraction of this article by noon tomorrow, 10 November. Otherwise, we will take appropriate legal action.

This demand is made even given the Update subsequently posted at the end of your article. Rather than admit that there was no factual basis for your original article, you have simply made limited revisions to your original story solely on the basis of your own flawed understanding of what Orbital officials or others have subsequently rebutted.

Please acknowledge this communication and state your intentions immediately.

Sincerely,
David B. Freeman
Vice President and Assistant General Counsel
Orbital Sciences Corporation

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.