The 28 Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists suing the federal government over what they say are new invasive security screening procedures are calling for comments about space shuttle security by U.S. Solicitor Gen. Neal Katyal to be stricken from the Supreme Court record.
In making his case that background checks involving medical records, personal finances and sexual preference are necessary to guarantee NASA security, Katyal told justices on Oct. 5 that holders of a JPL clearance enjoy extensive access privileges outside the La Cañada Flintridge facility.
"It's such an important credential that it would allow them to get within, for example, six to 10 feet of the space shuttle as it's being repaired and readied for launch," said Katyal, according to transcripts of the proceedings.
But plaintiff and JPL research scientist Robert Nelson argued that's a pretty spaced-out notion at best.
Nelson has sent letters demanding a retraction to Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
"This statement is patently untrue and represents false information presented to the highest court in the nation," Nelson wrote on behalf of the JPL plaintiffs.
The U.S. Department of Justice, however, is standing by Katyal, contending in a prepared statement that "the Solicitor General's Office worked closely with NASA officials in preparing for this case, including the use of the space shuttle example in the argument, and in no way misled the court."
Nelson said NASA Mission Critical Personnel Reliability Program requirements would not allow shuttle access by those with lower-risk qualifications, such as a JPL badge.
"At the launch of the Deep Space I mission, I was project scientist on the mission and only got within 150 feet of the vehicle, and that was on the other side of a 12-foot fence," said Nelson. "We're talking astronaut's lives here, and [Katyal's statement] is an insult to the people who make sure the shuttle is safe."
Deep Space I launched in 1998 from Cape Canaveral to test advanced space technology and study comets.
NASA security personnel could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but an agency spokesman told the Washington Post that low-risk government contract employees such as those at JPL — operated by Caltech, but owned by NASA — could get close to shuttle equipment access during special guided tours or after a launch.
The new security clearances and ID badges challenged by the scientists were ordered to fulfill a Homeland Security Presidential Directive ordered in 2004 by President George W. Bush.
Workers concerned about privacy issues related to the new background checks sued the government in 2007 and, in January 2008, won an injunction from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court is not expected to rule on the case for several months.