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Budget Restraints and ISS Log Editing
Impact NASA's Open Access Policy

By James Oberg
Special to SPACE.com
posted: 07:00 am ET 12 April 2001

NASA's Public Affairs Office is struggling to accommodate public access to the deluge of information flowing down from the International Space Station. But in some cases the policies appear to be a retreat from the full and open access mandated in NASA's charter, an access to which the public grew accustomed during most shuttle missions over the past 20 years.

No longer will satellite and cable viewers worldwide be able to tune in to the real-time voice downlink from the station crew. Faced with resource constraints, NASA has opted to return to the access policy used during its previous space station project, Skylab, in 1973-74. Newspeople at NASA centers around the country will have continuous access, but the public will not.

According to Rob Navias, a spokesperson at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas, due to recent funding restrictions "we don't have the resources to support distribution on NASA TV."

Sending the "Mission Audio" channel to NASA's Web site provider in Virginia for audio streaming over the Internet is an obvious technical solution, Navias admitted, but it "requires a fairly costly modification" to equipment. He would not estimate the projected cost of such a modification.

Rebroadcast of air-to-ground conversations was conducted over the NASA TV channel during Expedition One at night and on weekends when other programming was not needed, Navias explained. "It required resources at JSC and at Goddard," he pointed out, and has since been canceled. Meanwhile, NASA continues a one-hour daily summary of ISS operations, broadcast on NASA TV at 11:00 Eastern Time.

Along with these audio transmission constraints, NASA has also instituted a policy of "redaction" on the written logs sent down to Earth by ISS crews.

The daily Ships Logs written by Expedition One commander Bill Shepherd were posted in original form until early January. Then NASA withdrew the logs without notice, citing concerns over "privacy." The logs were then re-posted with about 20 percent of their contents removed. Even though Shepherd insisted the material was written with full public disclosure in mind, NASA officials concluded that much of what he was writing was unsuitable for release.

According to the NASA website "certain operational debriefing material has been edited from the Expedition One ship's log. This material is considered an integral and critically important element of the ongoing, deliberative decisional process NASA is undertaking related to long-duration International Space Station missions."

"This process must include necessary give-and-take communications about all aspects of crew and station performance," the site continued. "To be effective, these communications require absolute candor in discussion that would not be available if parties to the exchange, including intended recipients on the ground and future crew members, thought the material might be released to the public."

Spaceflight operations experts agree that this is a valid theme. "It's always difficult to strike a balance between the public's right to know and NASA's need for candor," said Marcia Smith, a space policy senior analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, DC.

Frederick Durant III, the former head of astronautics at the National Air & Space Museum, told SPACE.com that he would prefer NASA err on the side of openness.

"It seems to me that, generally, the flow of unedited and uncensored communication from ISS is exciting to us on the ground," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina.

On previous U.S. manned space missions lasting up to two weeks, crews could save up their most serious critical comments for blunt discussions during post-flight debriefings whose transcripts are not made public.

However while this may work for comparatively shorter, two-week missions, those lasting upwards of four months could possibly require a procedure that allows for in-flight debriefing-style candor.

The uncensored logbook entries from Expedition One shows that NASA's deletions from the officially released versions limits the public awareness of the difficulties and frustrations encountered by the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard what is basically a new and ongoing space experiment.

A comparison of original entries with those released by NASA shows that the deleted material dealt with specific hardware and documentation problems. The crew described what wasn't working, why it wasn't working and what had to be done to fix it.

The uncensored narratives provide insight into the everyday workings of a space station still under construction. Among the deleted materials is a crew complaint that the program designed to log crew reports of malfunctions was itself malfunctioning. "We have tried several times to get the 'crew squawk' tool running," noted the original log entry. "We are able to log in, but the program either locks up or won't launch when we try to run it."

The entry then described what needed to be done. "We would like to start documenting anomalies or things which need specific tracking and we believe the squawk tool will be a good way to do this if we can ever get it to behave," the text continued. "We would like to 'squawk' the crew squawk for starters."

In another deleted passage, the astronauts described a software problem familiar to millions of computer users back on Earth. "Sergei and Shep both experiencing problems with print jobs," the redacted entry reported. "Shep is continually getting half-page prints on some of his stuff. We are both getting blocked from changing the printer job cue. Apparently we don't have the right permissions. If the [Mission Control] folks could help here, this would be greatly appreciated."

The crew often described major problems with the computerized Inventory Management System (IMS), developed in response to "lessons learned" on Mir operations. The system uses a bar code reader to track the location of thousands of items (hardware, consumables and so forth) as the station's contents are changed by each resupply mission and by day-to-day usage. One striking lesson from Mir was that crew members often spent hours, even days locating materials needed for activities that were scheduled to take only an hour or two to complete.

After spending half a day seeking a storage bag that should have been found in two minutes, Shepherd complained that the database had been corrupted by bad data from Earth. "All done by the ground," he wrote. "And all, we think, talking about the â^À^Øwrongâ^À^Ù bag and generating data that at best, is confusing."

In another passage subsequently subtracted by NASA, Shepherd scolded the two flight control centers for not seeing the ISS as "more of a unified environment." His main complaint: "We are getting frequent words from both sides that â^À^Øthat's a Houston problem,â^À^Ù or â^À^Øit's up to Moscow to do that.â^À^Ù There are no spectators here -- we are all on the team on this one."

Once the stationâ^À^Ùs Ku-band communication system is working, there will be four channels of multiplexed video coming down to control centers and payload operations teams. According to Navias, "by policy of NASA Headquarters and the â^À^ØNASA TVâ^À^Ù executive producer, there is too much other video to solely dedicate â^À^ØNASA TVâ^À^Ù to ISS video." Instead, there will be a weekly video highlights summary released every Wednesday.

Navias stressed that "real-time" video and audio remained available to the news media that visit press centers or have their own trailers on NASA sites. Unlike the Skylab days, when all space conversations were manually transcribed, there are no plans to transcribe ISS conversations to create hardcopies, again due to financial limitations. As for written reports from the Expedition Two crew, there have been none released in the first month of flight, and NASA officials attribute this to "crew choice."

"There is a thrill of participation that is lost if the message is massaged, grammar corrected and strong feelings filtered out," Durant said. "Ideally, redaction should be limited to matters of security or personal privacy as opposed to 'C-Y-A' or demonstrations of bureaucratic power."


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