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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 October, 2004, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
Nasa man 'faked safety checks'
Discovery shuttle
The Discovery shuttle is due to take to the skies again next year
An ex-employee of the US space agency, Nasa, has pleaded not guilty to charges he falsified reports of safety checks on the space shuttle Discovery.

Bill Thornton's trial on 166 charges of lying and fraud is due in December.

The charges against the former Nasa worker relate to the period between October 2002 to May 2003, during which he allegedly falsified key inspections.

Mr Thornton's lawyer described him as a "meticulous" worker and warned he could turn into a "whistle-blower".

"Mr Thornton may have some things he would like to discuss at a future date," his lawyer told the Reuters news agency, when asked whether the accused was required to be present when the checks were made.

Flight delayed

The 54-year-old Nasa man, who spent 15 years with the agency until he was sacked in September 2003, was employed to inspect work done by contractors.

The indictment against him alleges he failed to carry out several of these checks, all of which concerned components of the shuttle vital to its safety.

Discovery is scheduled next year to become the first space shuttle to take to the skies since the Columbia shuttle broke up on re-entry in early 2003, killing seven astronauts.

However, the timetable for Discovery's journey has suffered delays because of damage wrought by the hurricanes which hit Florida this year.

A Nasa spokesman said another employee completed all the checks that were Mr Thornton's responsibility and the delays to the shuttle's schedule are not linked to the case against him.

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