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Archive for Saturday, July 28, 2007

Report: NASA ignored signs that astronauts were flying drunk

July 28, 2007

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— NASA has ignored flight surgeons and astronauts who questioned others' fitness to fly due to drinking, according to a report Friday that alleges "heavy alcohol use" in the immediate hours before flights.

A panel that studied astronaut medical issues also found that staff were "demoralized" when their identification of "major crew medical or behavioral problems" were ignored by NASA leadership.

The findings suggest that problematic cultural issues remain entrenched at NASA, which has been faulted repeatedly in the past for failing to heed safety warnings through the ranks.

The panel interviewed 14 astronauts, eight flight surgeons, five family members and other staff for the 12-page report, which noted that astronauts lack regular mental health assessments and feel pressure to hide their problems.

"Many anecdotes were related that involved risky behaviors by astronauts that were well known to other astronauts and no apparent action was taken," according to the review. "Peers and staff feared ostracism if they identify their own or others' problems."

The report was one of two released Friday by the agency, which requested the evaluations after astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested for attacking her romantic rival in an Orlando airport parking lot in February. Nowak since has been released from the astronaut corps to the Navy while she awaits a September trial.

Yet Nowak got little attention in a packed NASA news conference dominated by the alcohol concerns.

The report describes two cases in which astronauts who had been drinking were allowed to fly despite the concerns of flight surgeons or other astronauts. No specific names or missions were released.

The chairman of the panel, Air Force Col. Richard E. Bachmann Jr., said that one incident occurred in Kazakhstan for a Soyuz launch to the international space station and the other in Florida during a canceled shuttle launch attempt.

In Florida, he said, other astronauts considered their crewmate unfit when they were getting ready to fly back to Houston in T-38 training jets. It's unclear whether the astronaut had been intoxicated before getting strapped into the shuttle or had started drinking after the scrub.

Bachmann said the specifics are not as important as the underlying problem: That concerns went unheeded.

"Their professional input seemed to be disregarded, at least at the local level, and they were demoralized to the point that they felt they would be less likely to report concerns in the future," said Bachmann, who is commander of the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine.

Bachmann said he could not characterize the extent of inappropriate alcohol use within the corps.

"We have know way of knowing whether these were the only two incidents that have ever occurred within (NASA) history or if they are the tip of a very large iceberg," he said.

In response, NASA vowed to take immediate action while conducting its own investigation. The agency will survey all astronauts anonymously to learn more about potential problems, said Shana Dale, NASA deputy administrator.

The agency also updated its existing alcohol policy to include specific prohibition against drinking within 12 hours of a spaceflight - a policy previously applied explicitly only to flying in T-38 jets. Dale downplayed the suggestion of pervasive drinking and urged patience while the agency investigates.

"What I can tell you is that alcohol use in regards to spacecraft or aircraft and anybody that's going to be impaired is not going to be tolerated by this agency," she said.

Still, she said, alcohol would remain available to astronauts in the crew quarters they move into a week before a shuttle launch.

Astronauts are "responsible adults," who should be able to have a beer in their off-duty hours, Dale said.

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