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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."