This photograph, which features NASA researchers dressed as Vikings, was intended to evoke a fun and inspirational sense of exploration. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who launched an investigation to see if the photo had involved a misuse of government funds (it hadn't), was apparently unmoved by its message.
The photo was taken by Ved Chirayath, an astronautics grad student at Stanford and on-the-side fashion photographer, for a science-art exhibit dubbed Physics in Vogue. Here's Chirayath's description of the piece, from the exhibit's website:
NASA Ames Research Center leads the charge in small satellite innovation and development while evoking the Viking spirit of exploration and adventure. NASA Ames Center Director Dr. Simon P. Worden poses alongside the Vikings of Bjornstad for this photograph to personify that spirit and highlight NASA leadership in the modern space age. The next generation of small satellites, known as CubeSats, float above and herald a new era in space exploration and science. These CubeSats can be launched into Low Earth Orbit at a fraction of the cost of traditional systems, allowing more frequent, and more accessible scientific missions. My PhD research project, HiMARC, is based on this platform.
It's a fun photo, one that Chirayath – who also works at NASA's Ames Research Center (ARC) – organized on his own time and dime in hopes that "maybe one day some kid [would] look at it and say, ‘I want to work for NASA.’" It was also a clever way to increase public awareness about the Agency's awesome Cubesat Launch Initiative. Win-win, right? Yes-yes. But then something very stupid happened.
Via Science Insider:
Earlier this month, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, wrote to NASA chief Charles Bolden, asking him to investigate whether Chirayath’s photos involved the possible misuse of ARC funds and staff time. An “interested observer” had brought the photos to Grassley’s attention, Jill Gerber, the senator’s communications manager, tells ScienceInsider. In his 10 July letter, Grassley raised concerns about NASA spending on “non-mission critical activities” and asked Bolden to help him “better understand the participation of NASA employees and resources in this for-profit photography exhibit.”
Soon, agency investigators were asking questions—much to Chirayath’s surprise. “They made contact with just about every person who took part in the shoot,” he says. But there’s no smoking gun, he adds. His effort was strictly not-for-profit and didn’t involve ARC funds.
Emphasis added, because you know what did use up government funds? Grassley's investigation. “NASA can’t afford to promote their missions in this way and this is partly why I started this project,” Chirayath told Science Insider. "More was probably spent in taxpayer employee man-hours investigating me, my exhibition, and those involved than it might have cost [to produce the photo professionally.]"
High five, Grassley! We're glad someone in this country is working hard to keep kids from going into STEM careers – especially at NASA. Not like the massively underfunded Agency has done anything lately for anyone here on Earth, right? Right Grassley? Hey. Hey. High five.