Like Queen Victoria, Senator Grassley is not amused. He is not amused at what he thinks could be an example of government waste. No one likes government waste, least of all, Senator Grassley. The example, in this case, of government waste, is a series of photos of NASA employees dressed as Vikings. One can almost imagine them singing “We are the Vikings, the mighty NASA Vikings, ho!”
Are the photos of NASA employees dressed as Vikings a misuse of government money?
It turns out that the money used to create the photos was not government money. NASA News Chief Allard Beutel says that although the agency has yet to send an official reply, it has concluded that “there were no taxpayer funds used” for Space Vikings. “The employees were on their time, not on work time.”
The idea for the creative photo project originated from Ved Chirayath, an aeronautics and astronautics graduate student and amateur fashion photographer. Ved thought that taking photos of NASA researchers dressed as Vikings would be a creative way to promote space science.
According to Chirayath, a student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who also works nearby at NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC):
I started this project hoping maybe one day some kid will look at it and say, ‘I want to work for NASA.'”
Ved never suspected that his photo project would warrant a government investigation instigated by a senior U.S. senator.
Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican. Earlier this month, he wrote to NASA chief Charles Bolden, requesting Bolden to investigate if Chirayath’s pphotos involved a possible misuse of ARC funds and staff time.
According to the senator’s communications manager, Jill Gerber, to a writer with Science Insider, an “interested observer” had brought the photos to Grassley’s attention.
Grassley’s letter of July 10 mentions about his concerns that NASA might be spending money on “non-mission critical activities.” In the letter, he also asked Bolden to help him:
…better understand the participation of NASA employees and resources in this for-profit photography exhibit.”
Chirayath was understandably surprised when NASA investigators started asking questions. He said that “They made contact with just about every person who took part in the shoot.”
He adds that there’s no smoking gun. He says that his effort was strictly not-for-profit and didn’t involve ARC funds.
When did Chirayath first become become involved with NASA’s ARC?
In 2011, Chirayath, a photo enthusiast, whose subjects have included astronomical objects, marine and natural subjects, was looking for ways to combine his love of fashion photography, laboratory-grade optical effects, and scientific topics.
He applied for and won two Stanford University grants—totaling $4400—to create Physics in Vogue, an exhibition featuring 10 images that explore “profound contemporary physics discoveries.”
Chirayath began working at ARC last year. His job there is helping to develop small, compact research satellites known as “CubeSats.” The technology for these small satellites was developed in part at Stanford.
It reminded Chirayath of Viking explorers. From the eighth through 11th centuries, they “travelled farther and saw more in much smaller ships than had been used before their time.”
That connection inspired his Space Vikings photos, which led to a shoot this past December at a Palo Alto park on a weekday afternoon.
Chirayath worked together with the Vikings of Bjornstad. They are a living history group that likes to dress up To stage the scene. He also recruited ARC Director Simon Worden, Chief of Staff Karen Bradford, and executive secretary Carolina Rudisel to dress up like Vikings and participate.
Pumpkin Inc., run by a Stanford engineering professor, loaned him the satellite mock-ups used in the photo shoot.
Chirayath, after he posted the pictures online, heard rumblings from co-workers that a blogger took issue with the executive staff’s appearance, but he didn’t think it was a big deal until investigators started asking him questions.
Grassley and other lawmakers have taken issue with ARC’s use of money, in the past. Examples include whether it improperly housed aircraft owned by Google at NASA facilities.
To Chirayath, the entire investigation just seems like a pointless…waste of government money. He says that: “NASA can’t afford to promote their missions in this way and this is partly why I started this project.”
The irony of it is that “more was probably spent in taxpayer employee man-hours investigating me, my exhibition, and those involved than it might have cost,” to produce the photos professionally.
Senator Grassley might be guilty of the very thing that he’s investigating Chirayath for — wasting government money. And, he didn’t even get the fun of dressing up as a Viking and singing: “We are the Vikings, Mighty NASA Vikings, ho!”
Written by: Douglas Cobb