ORLANDO, Fla., April 15 (UPI) -- Documents obtained by the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel say NASA paid $26.6 million to relatives of the seven astronauts killed aboard the space shuttle Columbia.
The newspaper said Sunday it obtained the documents on the secret settlement by utilizing the federal Freedom of Information Act. It was not clear when the settlement in the 2003 deaths was approved.
Former FBI Director William Webster, also a former federal judge, acted as NASA's mediator and adviser in negotiating the out-of-court settlements.
Webster told the Sentinel the deal was kept secret at the request of the astronauts' families.
The money came from NASA's budget via a 2004 congressional appropriation.
Steven Aftergood, of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, criticized NASA for not disclosing the settlements earlier.
"It's not NASA's money. It's public money," he said.
Columbia's astronauts died Feb. 1, 2003, when the shuttle broke up on re-entry. An investigation determined chunks of insulation damaged Columbia's left wing, causing the accident.