The Chronicle's editors concluded that unless NASA finds a way to put a stop to these type of stories (and the activities they describe), "public support for bold expeditions to the moon and Mars will fade."
Later on Sunday, Johnson Space Center director and former astronaut Mike Coats sent a response to the column to all employees at the Houston space center. It is reprinted here in its entirety:
The Sunday Houston Chronicle contained an editorial highly critical of NASA. The editorial had a number of inaccuracies and misleading statements. I sent the following response to the Houston Chronicle today, in hopes that it will be printed in tomorrow's edition. I wanted you to see the full text sent to the Chronicle.
Sunday's Houston Chronicle (Falling Objects) presented an unbalanced and biased portrayal of NASA and the thousands of people working in our space program whose technological achievements have been a major contributor to the robust economy we enjoy and largely take for granted. I must take this opportunity to correct the misleading and inaccurate information portrayed as fact:
The rocket engine explosion that killed two people in California involved a private company unrelated to NASA operating at a facility miles away from the Edwards Air Force Base. The "facts" in the editorial are completely in error.
To the events of the past year outlined in the editorial, I can honestly say NASA has made great strides in improving its financial accountability and we take pride in being good stewards of the taxpayers' money. To list one incident of lost computer equipment, and then refer to general "financial irresponsibility" is unfair and sensational.
The Space Shuttle is an amazing vehicle, and we will not see another vehicle like it for many generations. We are still in our first half century of human spaceflight experience, and learn more about operating in space with each mission we fly. To say that we have "failed to solve a problem . that makes every flight a disaster waiting to happen" is not only inaccurate but misleading. In 119 Shuttle missions, we have incorporated improvements and developed techniques to improve safety. On August 21 on the runway in Florida, we got our first look at the damaged tile on Endeavour. It looked exactly as we expected based on aero-thermal, structures and computational fluid dynamics models and tests conducted during the flight indicated it would. Endeavour returned home safely because of engineering expertise, not luck.
To characterize a tragic murder/suicide and Lisa Nowak's aberrant behavior as "lurid" is irresponsible. That tragedy was a first on any NASA facility in its 50 year history. The Nowak case is sad for all of us, but the same external review committee report referenced by the Chronicle confirmed it is highly unlikely her "act of passion" could have been predicted or prevented. Astronauts are human, with human frailties. Lisa is being held accountable for her actions, but it should not be forgotten that she had an exemplary career and her service to the country as a Naval Aviator, test pilot, and astronaut was simply outstanding.
To condemn astronauts based on limited and uncorroborated comments in a report is inflammatory and unfair. The report chairman himself stated that "we cannot say with any certainty whether they, in fact, were at all under the influence or affected at the time that they actually flew." Internal and congressional investigations are on-going, and I hope when the facts are known, the Chronicle will show the same enthusiasm for the story. Astronauts take great pride in this country and the people who make it possible to fly in space, and would never jeopardize a mission by drinking inappropriately.
NASA's flight surgeons are the finest group of medical professionals I have ever encountered. It is an insult to infer they would ever become indifferent to the health needs of the astronauts, or anyone under their care.
NASA is not perfect. We have and will make mistakes and we will take responsibility for them. The Chronicle editorial was grossly unfair to the thousands of space professionals who enable this country to lead the world in technology and exploration.
Michael L. Coats
Director, Johnson Space Center