When we think of NASA, our minds immediately drift to all things extra-terrestrial--aircraft maneuvering around peanut-shaped comets, say, or humanity's indefatigable hope that the agency will one day unveil proof that aliens exist.
That's why it's surprising to learn that NASA has just concluded an investigation of Toyota vehicle safety--a matter very much of this earth. NASA engineers, along with Transportation Department officials, rejected consumer allegations about last year's controversy--that electronic glitches caused Toyota cars and truck to accelerate out of control. Instead NASA blames the unintended acceleration that prompted a massive recall of Toyota vehicles on sticky accelerator pedals, defective floor mats, and, most commonly, "pedal misapplication" (drivers accidentally hitting the gas instead of the brake). As part of the 10-month study, engineers inspected 78 vehicles and analyzed more than 280,000 lines of software code.
Why did NASA conduct the investigation, instead of an agency like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)?
The Christian Science Monitor's Clara Moskowitz explains that the NHTSA turned to engineers at the Virginia-based NASA Engineering and Safety Center because of their expertise in electronic and software systems and because they know how to identify the root of a problem, having previously investigated the causes of the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster. She adds that the center also helped design a system to rescue the trapped Chilean miners.
Then there's the more cynical view of Dan Bigman at Forbes. He suggests that the government brought in NASA to lend the study more credibility--calling NASA "the government's shorthand acronym for smart and politically neutral research." Indeed, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood noted on Tuesday that the government had "enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota's electronics systems." That hasn't stopped some consumer advocates from questioning the study's rigor, however.
Joyce Pines at MLive, meanwhile, raises the possibility that NASA engineers need to keep busy now that the agency isn't chartering as many manned space flights as it used to.
When the Toyota investigation first launched in March, the Wire noted that NASA might be involved for another reason: to test whether ambient radiation from space had interfered with the circuitry in Toyota vehicles. NASA does briefly mention this hypothesis on page 169 of its report. Ultimately, however, NASA dismisses cosmic rays as a major cause of unintended acceleration.