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Ex-NASA inspector accused of lying

By Associated Press
Published October 7, 2004

ORLANDO - A former NASA inspector was accused of lying about inspecting critical parts on the space shuttle Discovery before and after the Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts and grounded the orbiter fleet.

Billy T. Thornton falsified records about 83 Discovery inspections over nine days from Oct. 24, 2002, to May 14, 2003, according to a federal indictment unsealed Tuesday. NASA fired him in September 2003.

The former National Aeronautics and Space Administration quality assurance specialist was responsible for checking that contractors completed work on electronics and other components considered necessary for safe flight.

For instance, Thornton was charged with signing off on 65 inspections of Discovery's interior structure on Dec. 13, 2002, without entering the orbiter to check repairs by the civilian contractor, United Space Alliance.

Each was classified as a "criticality one" inspection. That means the part being inspected doesn't have a backup system and destruction of the shuttle and its crew could result if it fails.

Thornton, 54, of Port St. John declined to comment Tuesday. His lawyer, Kepler Funk, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

"Mr. Thornton has been a long-standing employee up there and is known as a guy who dots his i's and crosses his t's," Funk said. "Mr. Thornton considers working on the shuttle a privilege and an honor, not merely a job to go to every day."

Thornton was charged with 83 counts of fraud involving space vehicle parts, and each charge carries up to $500,000 in fines and 15 years in prison. Another 83 counts charge him with filing a false statement, and each carries up to five years in prison.

[Last modified October 7, 2004, 00:30:24]

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