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Computer bound for space station was sabotaged

July 27, 2007|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

A computer scheduled to be delivered to the International Space Station next month was sabotaged, possibly by a worker at a Texas subcontractor's plant, although NASA officials said Thursday that the damage would have posed no danger to the station.

Several wires were cut inside the briefcase-sized unit and two identical devices, said Edmund Memi, a spokesman for Boeing Co., the main contractor for the space station.

The news came just hours after the trade magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology reported that a NASA panel had found that drunk astronauts were allowed to fly on two occasions even though doctors warned they could pose a safety risk.

The panel, examining astronaut health issues, also found "heavy use of alcohol" in the 12-hour period before launch when no drinking was allowed, the magazine reported on its website. NASA officials told reporters that they were looking into the claims.

The panel is expected to release its findings today. It was convened after astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak was arrested in February on charges that she assaulted and attempted to kidnap a romantic rival.

The sabotage, uncovered during the last week, appears to have occurred in early June, while the devices were still at Invocon Inc., an electronics firm with about 30 employees in Conroe, Texas, about 40 miles north of Houston.

"We don't know if it's one or more people," said Kevin Champaigne, an executive at the company.

Two of the computers were known to be working properly in early June, a week before they were delivered to Boeing in Houston, Memi said.

Boeing kept one in storage and sent the other to NASA's Johnson Space Center.

A third computer remained at Invocon. The company discovered the clipped wires July 20 when the computer would not turn on for a software test.

When the other computers were checked, similar damage was found, Memi said.

NASA's inspector general office is investigating. Boeing said it planned to repair the space-bound computer in time for the scheduled Aug. 7 launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, which will carry the device to the station.

The computer is part of a new space station system that collects data on stresses to the space station structure and relays it to mission control on the ground.

Deliberate damage to space-bound equipment is rare but not unheard of.

"There's been sabotage of some components in the past," said Rich Clifford, deputy manager of the space shuttle program at Boeing and a former astronaut. "Like any other business, there are disgruntled employees."

Such damage has always been detected before launch time, he said.

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alan.zarembo@latimes.com

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