NASA, Congress to Investigate Drunk Astronaut Accounts

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NEW YORK — NASA has launched an investigation into claims in a report by an independent health panel that astronauts have flown despite appearing intoxicated, space agency officials said July 27.

“At this point, we’re dealing with allegations and we need to find out what the ground truth is,” NASA associate administrator Shana Dale said in a press briefing.

The investigation, as well as a new explicit alcohol policy pertaining to alcohol use by astronauts prior to spaceflight, stem from the findings of an independent review of NASA’s health system for astronauts. The 12-page report, along with an internal NASA review on the agency’s medical processes, was released July 27.

Members of Congress also vowed to investigate. “I am very disappointed in the serious allegations reported in today’s findings,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science
subcommittee, said in a statement of the independent review. “I expect NASA to take immediate steps to implement the report’s corrective actions.”

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said in a statement issued July 27: “Drinking and driving is never a good idea — least of all when the vehicle involved is a multi-billion dollar Space Shuttle or a high performance jet aircraft. But it’s not just alcohol abuse; you only have to read the report to know that something clearly seems to be broken in NASA’s system of astronaut oversight. I hope the agency will take the review team’s seriously, and not just fall back on the tired bromide that the review team’s findings are ‘unproven allegations.’ Reports of drunken astronauts are just a part of the story — the review team’s report contains a number of other findings that are cause for concern.”

U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann, who chaired the independent panel, said his committee found at least two instances – one involving astronauts flying aboard a NASA shuttle and T-38 aircraft and the other relating to Russian Soyuz flight to the international space station. In one of the accounts, Bachmann said, an astronaut reported concerns about a colleague’s condition after a shuttle launch was delayed and the orbiter crew was leaving NASA’s Florida spacewalk aboard on of the agency’s T-38 training jets.

In both reports, he stressed, the astronauts or flight surgeons with concerns felt their input was disregarded, as the astronauts in question were ultimately allowed to fly.

“We cannot say with any certainty whether they were in fact at all under the influence or feeling the effects at the time they flew,” Bachmann said of the astronauts in question, who were not named in the report, nor were the times, dates of specific missions of each account. “The concern was that the medical advisors or the peers, who should be empowered to raise questions, felt like they were not.”

NASA launched both astronaut health reviews in the days following the Feb. 5 arrest of former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak. Florida police officers arrested Nowak in a parking lot at the Orlando International Airport after she allegedly attacked a woman that authorities said she perceived as a romantic rival for the affections of then-space shuttle astronaut William Oefelein.

Nowak has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping, battery and burglary with assault. NASA dismissed both Nowak and Oefelein from their astronaut duties earlier this year.

Some former astronauts lamented that the report’s anonymous anecdotes of astronaut drinking would tarnish the 26-year reputation of NASA and its shuttle flying astronaut corps.

“It doesn’t fit with anything, anything that I’ve ever seen or heard,” said former astronaut Tom Jones, who flew four shuttle missions between 1994 and 1998. “I flew with about 20 people on four missions and I never saw anybody with any kind of problem in the hours before launch.”

Jones said that based on his experience with NASA flight surgeons and fellow astronauts, he finds it hard to believe that an astronaut would be cleared for flight with a known performance deficit, especially in an era that has seen two shuttle disasters — Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 — that ended in astronaut fatalities.

“Three’s no upside to letting this guy get a pass,” Jones said. “This is where it all comes down to doing the job and doing it 100 percent effectively.”

When asked why the agency does not prohibit astronaut alcohol use, Dale replied: “After they finish their regular day of work if they want to go back to their crew quarters and have a beer, I think that’s okay.”

Dale also said the agency would have no further comment on allegations that wires inside a computer box bound for the international space station had been intentionally cut. The agency disclosed the incident during a July 26 press conference about the completion of the flight readiness review for the shuttle Endeavour, which now is scheduled for launch Aug. 7. Dale said there will be no additional comment on the incident until the NASA Inspector General’s Office has completed its investigation.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, told reporters July 26 the computer will be repaired and will fly on Endeavour.

The subcontractor responsible for building the damaged computer box reported the apparent cutting of the wire about a week ago, said Gerstenmaier, who declined to disclose the name of the subcontractor while the investigation is under way.