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No Tax Dollars Went To Make This Space Viking Photo

Aug 5, 2013
Originally published on March 18, 2014 4:02 pm

Scrutinizing the books of government agencies can turn up lavish parties or illicit trips at the taxpayers' expense. But not every investigation turns out that way. And when they don't, the hunt for waste can appear to be a waste itself.

Such appears to be the case with a recent inquiry involving NASA and Viking re-enactors. This whole saga began with an idea from Ved Chirayath, an aeronautics graduate student at Stanford University who loves photography. He was talking over what to shoot one day with a colleague, and thought of Vikings.

"In the San Francisco Bay there's all these marshes, and so for some reason both of us had in our heads a picture of one of these Viking ships landing in this marsh," Chirayath says.

Chirayath had a small grant from Stanford to take science-themed portraits. He was also working nearby at NASA's Ames Research Center. NASA and Vikings are sort of related — both are known for exploration (NASA's first Martian landers were named Viking I and Viking 2).

And the Ames center had another connection to Vikings: Pete Worden, the center's director, likes to dress like one.

"I had once seen Dr. Worden give a monthly talk at NASA Ames on sort of the state of all things cool at NASA, and he gave that talk in a Viking costume," Chirayath says.

Worden likes all sorts of costumes, actually. He and a few other officials were game with Chirayath's plan for a Viking portrait in the marshes, so Chirayath rounded up some Viking re-enactors from the Internet. They agreed to do it for free. "We had all these Vikings come out that were just really enthusiastic about NASA and were just willing to help in any way they could," he says.

They all gathered on a December afternoon last year for the shoot. The photos may have been a bit random, but it was a lot of fun.

Until last month. An anonymous concerned citizen contacted Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley with a lot of questions about the Viking photos: Were the people on the clock when they were doing this? Was there any taxpayer money involved?

Around the same time, Chirayath got a long telephone call from an investigator. NPR has learned that the call was actually part of a second investigation by NASA's independent Office of Inspector General.

"It was multiple phone calls," he says. "I had to surrender all the emails pertaining to the shoot, communications with the Viking group, communications with virtually everyone involved in that process."

Jack Garrett, who leads the Vikings of Bjornstad re-enactor troupe, denies receiving any inappropriate booty from NASA officials: "From a Viking standpoint, there wasn't much pillaging involved," Garrett says. "The full extent of our compensation was some greeting cards that Ved had made of his own photographs, and some bottled water."

Chirayath adds that he scrupulously avoided using any NASA resources for the shoot. "I was very careful to dot all my i's and cross all my t's," he says.

The inspector general won't discuss how much all this cost, but Chirayath did a quick calculation, totaling up the number of interviews, multiplied by the work hours, multiplied by the salary of the investigator and others involved. "I came to a lower-end budget of around $40,000, and an upper end of around $600,000," he says. That's far more than the cost of a professional photo shoot, even if NASA had paid for it, he says.

Grassley says that these sorts of inquiries are not part of a Viking witch hunt, but that asking questions like this are part of his job as a senator.

"I have a constitutional responsibility for oversight, to make sure that the laws are faithfully executed and that the money is spent according to congressional intent," he says.

NASA declined to go on a recording, but a spokesperson told NPR that their investigation has just concluded and found no government resources were used in the shoot. Grassley's office tells NPR they're largely satisfied with the outcome, though they're planning to speak to investigators later this week.

Garrett says a Viking investigation would have gone far differently: "I bring my sword; you bring your sword; we both bring three shields," he says. "The winner is obviously correct."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From time to time, we report on stories of government officials squandering money on lavish, even outlandish parties at the taxpayer expense. This is not one of those stories, though it does involve NASA and Vikings.

NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has the story.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It all began with an idea. Ved Chirayath is an aeronautics graduate student at Stanford University who loves photography. He was talking over what to shoot one day with a colleague and thought of Vikings.

VED CHIRAYATH: In the San Francisco Bay there's all these marshes. And so, for some reason, both of us had in our heads a picture of one of these Viking ships landing in this marsh.

BRUMFIEL: Chirayath had a small grant from Stanford to take science-themed portraits. He's an aspiring astronaut, so he also works nearby at NASA's Ames Research Center. NASA and Vikings are sort of related - both are known for exploration. And the Ames center had another connection, Pete Worden, the center's director, likes to dress like one.

CHIRAYATH: I had once seen Dr. Worden give sort of a monthly talk at NASA Ames on sort of the state of all things cool at NASA, and he gave that talk in a Viking costume.

BRUMFIEL: Worden and a few other officials agreed to the shoot. And Chirayath rounded up some Viking reenactors off the Internet who were willing to do it for free.

CHIRAYATH: We had all these Vikings come out that were all really enthusiastic about NASA and their mission, and they wanted to just help in any way they could.

BRUMFIEL: They all gathered on a December afternoon last year.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go, Odin.

CHIRAYATH: Nice, that was one of the best ones.

BRUMFIEL: That's video from the shoot. The photos are a little random. There's some Vikings and some satellites and some fog from a fog machine.

CHIRAYATH: It was not one of my... (Laughing) ...best pieces, I feel like. It was kind of put together last minute.

BRUMFIEL: But it was a lot of fun, until last month. A concerned citizen contacted Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley with a lot of questions about the Viking photos. Here's the senator.

SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: Were the people on the clock when they were doing this? Was there any taxpayers' money involved?

BRUMFIEL: Around the same time, Chirayath got a call.

CHIRAYATH: It was a long telephone interview.

BRUMFIEL: NPR has learned that that call was actually part of another investigation, this one by NASA's independent Office of Inspector General. They wanted to know details, like what kind of bottled water did he give people?

CHIRAYATH: And I was like... (Laughing) OK, it's Costco, like bottled water.

BRUMFIEL: Chirayath was baffled. The pictures weren't taken using NASA equipment or funding. All that information was clearly posted on his website.

CHIRAYATH: In fact, in bold letters.

BRUMFIEL: But the investigations by NASA and Grassley continued.

CHIRAYATH: Yeah, it was multiple phone calls. I had to give - sort of surrender all the emails that pertained to the shoot; communications with the Viking group; communications with virtually everyone involved in that process.

BRUMFIEL: The inspector general won't discuss how much all this cost, but Chirayath did a quick calculation: number of interviews, multiplied by work hours, multiplied by salaries of those involved.

CHIRAYATH: And I came to a lower-end budget of around $40,000.

BRUMFIEL: And an upper end of more than half a million. Chirayath says he spent around $150 on the shoot. Senator Grassley says this isn't just a Viking hunt.

Do you have something against people dressing up as Vikings?

GRASSLEY: No. In fact, don't you see them on television, on the commercials? I kind of enjoy it. (Laughing)

BRUMFIEL: Grassley says asking questions like this are part of his job as a senator.

GRASSLEY: I have a constitutional responsibility of oversight, to make sure that the laws are faithfully executed and that the money is spent according to congressional intent.

BRUMFIEL: NASA declined to go on tape. But a spokesperson told NPR their investigation has just concluded and found no government resources were used. Grassley is mostly satisfied but his office still plans to speak with NASA investigators later this week.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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