A pair of powerful Republican congressional committee chairmen with NASA oversight have highlighted a growing schism in U.S. space policy with their public charge that a senior NASA manager failed to protect sensitive U.S. defense technology being adapted for civil use. In suggesting that “political pressure may be a factor” in a Justice Department decision not to issue criminal charges in the case, they are raising the stakes in an ongoing debate about the proper roles of government and the private sector in space exploration.

The official in question, Ames Research Center Director Simon P. “Pete” Worden, vehemently denies he has been lax in protecting technology covered by International Trade in Armaments Regulations (ITAR), and says he has never been approached by federal law enforcement officials about the matter.

But Worden and his supporters epitomize the “new space” approach adopted by the Obama administration, including freewheeling efforts to promote innovation, international outreach and open-handed transfer of technology developed at taxpayer expense to the private sector. In the process, they have drawn sharp criticism from some whose interests and experience follow a more traditional line, including the drafters of an unsubstantiated but highly detailed whistleblower document that has circulated on Capitol Hill for months.

The 55-page document charges that Worden has allowed unauthorized foreign nationals access to ITAR-protected technology, including Chinese engineers attending an International Space University session at Ames in 2009, and has favored idealistic young staffers from other nations at the expense of national security.

Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who chair a key House Appropriations subcommittee and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, respectively, drew on the whistleblower charges in joint letters to FBI Director Robert Mueller and Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, dated Feb. 8.

Regarding a federal criminal investigation into the “alleged illegal transfer of ITAR-controlled technology by individuals at the NASA Ames Research Center,” the lawmakers wrote: “It is our understanding that this illegal technology transfer may have involved classified Defense Department weapons system technology to foreign countries, including China, potentially with the tacit or direct approval of the center's leadership.”

According to sources at Ames and on Capitol Hill, the technology in question includes propulsion and other systems originally developed for missile defense applications that was adapted for civil spacecraft, including a robotic lunar lander prototype and NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (Ladee), now entering thermal vacuum test at Ames.

Worden, a retired Air Force brigadier general with a long resume in highly classified military space activities, including missile defense, says he has ensured that ITAR technology at Ames is well protected, and that any non-U.S. citizens who have access to it have proper licenses.

“Whenever I get information from any source that makes allegations, I turn it over immediately to the investigative folks,” Worden says. “And it's for them to go do what they will with it. I've been in the government my whole career, and I've found the best way to make sure the truth gets out [is to] turn it over to the investigative folks and say 'we'll let the chips fall where they may.'”

Smith, who recently became chairman of the science panel that authorizes NASA spending, and Wolf, a veteran appropriations subcommittee chairman who has blocked NASA from spending any money for space cooperation with China on human-rights grounds, also charged that a computer hard drive confiscated from one member of Worden's staff was “corrupted, as were all the backup copies in the government's possession.” In addition to that suggestion of evidence tampering, which a congressional staffer says may have occurred while the hard drive was in the possession of the NASA inspector general, the two chairmen also implied that the Justice Department blocked prosecution of the case for reasons that go beyond evidence and legal judgment.

“We are deeply concerned that political pressure may be a factor and are formally requesting an investigation into the circumstances of the Justice Department's actions with regard to this case,” they wrote.

When Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, denied publicly that she had sought indictments in the Ames case, Smith and Wolf said they had information to the contrary from “federal law enforcement sources,” and expressed the “hope that the DOJ IG will take our request seriously.”

“I think you've had violations of the law,” says Wolf, who oversees appropriations for NASA, the Justice Department and the FBI. “You've had the FBI look at this. You've had the U.S. attorneys make a decision to move ahead, and you've had somebody stop it at the Justice Department. I think you have a criminal and a scandal here.”

Among the technologies allegedly leaked at Ames are designs for high-performance rocket engines, fuel and oxidizer tanks from an “ASAT” (anti-satellite weapon), guidance and terrain-mapping systems from the Tomahawk cruise missile and a radar altimeter from the F-35, an Ames whistleblower tells Aviation Week, requesting anonymity on advice of counsel.

However, Worden says all of the technology used in the Ladee spacecraft is “100% commercial” and no defense technology “to the best of my knowledge” was used on the robotic lunar lander prototype, a “pretty simple device” which was subsequently transferred to the Marshall Space Flight Center. The non-U.S. staffers mentioned in the whistleblower document no longer work at Ames.

The charges raised by the two committee chairmen are not the first time Worden has run into trouble over his approach to innovation. He tangled with Rep. Pete Olsen (R-Texas) last year about the transfer of NASA arc-jet test gear from Johnson Space Center in Houston to Ames, and he was frustrated with Administrator Charles Bolden in 2010 over the latter's denial of a $10 million request for alternate-fuels research at the Mountain View, Calif., field center.

According to a report by the NASA inspector general on ethics charges against Bolden—later deemed unfounded—Worden complained to Deputy Administrator Lori Garver about the “good ole boy networks” at the agency. The ethics case arose after the administrator sought input on alternative fuels from an oil company in which he held stock.

“This is frankly the worst of NASA and I don't like it,” Worden wrote in an e-mail to Garver quoted in the IG report. He continued that theme in an interview Feb. 13.

“Some people accuse me of being the newest of new space,” he says. “Others accuse me of being the oldest of old space. We're trying to figure out how to do the really cool stuff NASA has to do in science, in technology and in human exploration, in the most efficient, affordable and effective manner.”

Tap here in the tablet edition of AW&ST to read our account of an uproar over space technology transfer to China in the late 1990s, or go to AviationWeek.com/techtransfer