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A couple of months after refusing to release information about the safety of U.S. air travel, NASA has now released some of that data. Earlier, NASA had expressed concern that the information might scare the public and hurt the aviation industry. But there was an outcry, so today the space agency dumped 29,000 lines of raw data onto the Internet. And they're not saying what any of it means.
NPR's Richard Harris reports.
RICHARD HARRIS: The Associated Press first asked for these data under a Freedom of Information Act request. NASA's response about scaring the public was so startling Administrator Michael Griffin was called before Congress to explain. At that hearing on Halloween, Griffin acknowledged that NASA's rationale for holding back the data was wrong, and he promised to release the data by the end of the year.
And today, December 31st, he complied — with a data set that has been broken up into long columns, mostly zeroes, stripped of information that could help put it into context. The data aren't just ugly, NASA Chief Griffin told reporters on a conference call, he doesn't believe them. For example, he said it would appear that jet aircraft engines fail at four times the reported rate, according to NASA's extensive survey of pilots.
Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration): This is an area where if someone comes in and says we're seeing four times as many engine failures as are being otherwise reported, it calls into question the reporting mechanism rather than the underlying rate of engine failure which we believe we understand.
HARRIS: So what to make of the data? Griffin says, as a pilot and airline passenger himself, he doesn't see anything there.
Mr. GRIFFIN: There's 29,000 lines to this data. I've seen a few of them. It's hard for me to see any data here that the traveling public would care about or ought to care about.
HARRIS: That's quite a turnabout from what NASA said when it first refused to release the data. Griffin's explanation now is that while the space agency spent $11 million to amass this data over four years…
Mr. GRIFFIN: NASA never intended to interpret this data. From the first, this study was - in writing - was advertized as having, as its basic purpose, the development of methodologies for collecting aviation safety data.
HARRIS: That statement doesn't pass the sniff test for a Stanford University professor Jon Krosnick.
Professor JON KROSNICK (Communication, Political Science and Psychology, Stanford University): It is preposterous to say that $11-million study was done to collect data but not analyze the data.
HARRIS: And obviously, NASA did analyze it enough to conclude that it might scare the public. Krosnick served as a consultant to help NASA contractors develop the survey in the first place. He says the root problem here is that when NASA went to analyze the data after they'd collected it, they did it wrong.
Prof. KROSNICK: They were computing the numbers wrong from the survey. They were seeing really high rates, implausibly high rates, panickingly high rates. And as a result of that, they wanted to bury this survey.
HARRIS: When the House Science and Technology Committee called them on that, NASA agreed to release the raw data. That's what appeared on the NASA Web site today.
Krosnick says, though, it's useless in its current form.
Prof. KROSNICK: It's completely uninterpretable. And in fact, it's more damaging than uninterpretable…
HARRIS: Because anybody who tries to interpret it will come to absurd conclusions, Krosnick says. That's because NASA has not released some key data, and without that you will come to wring answers.
So what this says about air safety at the moment is pretty much nothing. Fortunately, there is a way out of this morass. Under guidance from Congress, NASA will ask the National Academy of Sciences to weigh in on this.
Prof. KROSNICK: I'm really delighted that they've brought the National Academy of Sciences in to review the methodology because I'm 100 percent certain that they're going to love it.
HARRIS: Right now, the Federal Aviation Administration relies on voluntary reporting of problems, not random surveys like the kind NASA attempted. So ultimately, what could come from this is a better way to identify problems in the air.
Richard Harris, NPR News, Washington.
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