NASA to Investigate Report of Astronauts Boozing, Then Flying

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007

NASA officials said yesterday that they will look into reports that astronauts were allowed to fly not long after drinking alcohol -- on several occasions after warnings that they were intoxicated and a potential flight-safety risk.

Agency spokesman David Mould said one of two reviews of the medical and psychological health of astronauts scheduled to be made public today will include secondhand accounts of astronauts drinking before flights. He said the review does not include the reports in its "findings of fact" but relays the information as something for the agency to investigate.

"We take this and other parts of the reports very seriously and will look into it," Mould said. "But we need to verify the facts before we can know what the appropriate action might be."

The reports were first published online yesterday by Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.

Mould said the reports of drinking before flights did not necessarily refer to space shuttle flights and could have involved test flights on other vehicles.

The two NASA reviews were ordered by Administrator Michael Griffin after the arrest in February of then-astronaut Lisa M. Nowak. She was accused of stalking and threatening a woman in Orlando whom she believed to be a romantic rival.

One of the two reviews, conducted by a panel of military and civilian government doctors, psychologists, lawyers and astronauts, was designed to look broadly into the psychological stresses and strains on astronauts and how the agency has dealt with them. The other was an internal review at the Johnson Space Center in Houston that dealt more specifically with the psychological screening of aspiring astronauts.

NASA has a 12-hour "bottle to throttle" rule that forbids drinking before flights. But according to Aviation Week, on at least two occasions astronauts were allowed to fly even after medical officers or other astronauts warned that they were intoxicated.

NASA's space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, told the Associated Press yesterday that he had never had to deal with a safety issue involving astronaut drinking.

"There's not been a disciplinary action or anything I've been involved with regarding this type of activity," he said.

Also yesterday, NASA announced that the freshly overhauled space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to launch on Aug. 7 -- its first mission in nearly five years. The seven-member crew will include teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, who trained 22 years ago as the backup to teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion.

While making that announcement, officials revealed they had discovered an apparent act of sabotage on a computer part the shuttle is scheduled to take to the international space station. They said they had begun an investigation of an unidentified employee of a subcontractor after finding that wires had been cut on computer equipment designed to transfer data from sensors on the station to Mission Control on the ground.

Officials said they discovered the problem after finding damage to a similar computer that is not bound for space. Gerstenmaier said the damage was done before the computers were delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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