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NASA Drone Memo: Warnings, Spinoffs, And Political Talking Points

By Keith Cowing
March 2, 2020
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NASA Drone Memo: Warnings, Spinoffs, And Political Talking Points

Keith’s note: On 21 February 2020 a memo titled “Unauthorized Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Flights Over NASA Centers/Facilities”, written by Joseph S. Mahaley, Assistant Administrator, Office of Protective Services, was sent to the entire NASA workforce. It opens with:

“This communication is forwarded at the direction of NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurcyzk to educate all employees, contractors, tenants, and others having access to NASA properties on the threat posed to people, facilities and operations by unauthorized UAS/drone flights over NASA Centers/Facilities.”

OK, this is a perfectly reasonable thing to advise employees about. Drones are problematic for many reasons. After going into the damage that can be caused by – and punishment for violations of NASA drone use policy, the author goes on to describe the various uses of drones:

“UAS/drones are used to film weddings, properties, inspect power lines, and to identify fires in remote forests. Criminals use them to “peep” into windows and to deliver contraband to prisons. U.S. Law Enforcement officials are concerned that terrorists may use UAS/drones in future attacks. Soon, UAS/drones will deliver packages to homes, ferry people to and from their destinations and for purposes not yet imagined: all with the help of NASA UAS traffic Management Systems!”

This is a weird train wreck of strange word capitalizations (editor needed), a list of the benefits of drone use, and the bad uses of drones – and they are all apparently benefiting from the NASA UAS traffic technology. Its like a list of NASA spinoffs for good guys and/or bad guys. The author then goes further to list the dangerous uses of drones:

“The Department of Defense very successfully uses UAS/Drones to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance. In January of this year, U.. Forces using an MQ-9 Reaper UAS, at the direction of President Trump, eliminated top Iranian terrorist Qassem Soleimani (leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Force) under whose direction scores of U.S. Forces were killed or maimed and who was in Iraq to plan more attacks against Americans. UAS/drones can be used for good or ill; depending on the skill/intent of the operator.”

To be clear this evil b*stard deserved no mercy. Full stop. You can debate whether or not it should have been done this way but not in a NASA memo. This paragraph reads like some political talking points and election year arm waving sent directly from the White House spin office. Why is NASA using an internal memo to employees to brag about a military attack mentioning the President by name – unless, perhaps, this is also a spin off of NASA UAS traffic management technology? I think we all doubt that this is the case. So why is it even mentioned?
This memo would be just fine without this overtly political paragraph. And to mix NASA benefits in the middle of a memo designed to warn people of certain dangers is a goofy place to try and promote NASA technology. Save that for a separate memo and focus on the risks. I hope someone in Jurcyzk’s office pays a little more attention to incendiary and politically-tanted verbiage being sent out in official memos.
Get an editor, Steve.
I sent these questions to PAO etc. to see if someone can explain this: “Can someone explain why overt mention of a specific military action in Iraq was deemed necessary to mention in a memo designed to warn NASA employees about drones flying over NASA facilities?” and “Why was a memo used to warn employees about drone risks also used to promote the benefits of drone use?”
Full memo.
Keith’s update: This is NASA PAO’s non-answer answer: “Hey Keith. As you know, NASA is involved in the development of unmanned aircraft, and drone technologies and traffic management systems. The intent of the phrasing was to point out to employees that there are positive and negative uses of these technologies, and to give examples of both. The communication was intended to convey the risks to people, facilities, and operations posed by unauthorized flights over NASA Centers and facilities. The mention of the military drone strike was included, as this was a very recent example of the potential power and lethality of drones.”

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