NASA Ignored Warnings of Drunk Astronaut
Friday, July 27, 2007; 4:46 PM
NASA officials at least twice disregarded warnings from flight surgeons and astronauts that a crew member who was getting ready to go into space appeared to be drunk, the chairman of a panel appointed to examine the agency's handling of astronauts' physical and mental health said today.
In one case, the apparently impaired astronaut went into space on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while the other involved a scrubbed space shuttle flight and a subsequent flight on a NASA training aircraft.
"These two incidents of alcohol use were chosen to illustrate a larger problem," said Col. Richard Bachmann, head of the review panel created early this year.
Bachmann said that flight surgeons and astronauts reported the incidents to superiors and "their professional input seemed to be disregarded at the local level, leaving them feeling demoralized about reporting in the future."
NASA strictly prohibits drinking by astronauts in the 12 hours before any flight, but the review panel reported that "interviews with both flight surgeons and astronauts identified some episodes of heavy use of alcohol by astronauts in the immediate preflight period . . . Alcohol is freely used in crew quarters" where crew members prepare for launches.
In a press conference to discuss the report, in addition to second internal inquiry into behavioral screening and assistance for astronauts at the Johnson Space Center, NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said the agency took the reports seriously and would begin a broad inquiry. She also said efforts had already begun to ensure that any concerns of flight surgeons and astronauts about the well-being of crew members would be quickly and seriously considered.
The chief of the agency's Office of Safety will conduct the inquiry, she said, and if "any incidents occurred, he will determine the causes and recommend corrective actions." She said the agency would make sure that any risky astronaut behavior will be "dealt with by appropriate medical authorities and flight crew management, and, if necessary, elevated through a transparent system of senior management review."
Both Dale and Bachmann emphasized that the reports of pre-launch drinking were unconfirmed and had come from flight surgeons and astronauts who did not necessarily have first-hand knowledge of the incidents.
Another recommendation made by the outside review panel -- which was formed in the aftermath of the arrest of former astronaut Lisa Nowak on charges that she tried to kidnap a rival for the affections of another astronaut -- was to develoform an astronaut code of conduct. Dale said that a group of astronauts had already begun putting together possible elements of the code.
The call for the code of conduct, together with the allegations of widespread drinking, painted a picture of the astronaut corps that is quite different from the "best and the brightest" image it has long enjoyed. Reflecting the quick turnaround, Ellen Ochoa, an astronaut and director of flight crew operations, called the allegations of astronaut drinking "events that baffle us."
The report was quickly embraced by members of Congress, with an announcement that the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee will hold hearings on the conclusions the first week of September.
"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," said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Science and Technology committee.
"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 seriously, and not just fall back on the tired bromide that the review team's findings are 'unproven allegations.'"
The review also recommends that NASA strengthen the formal bonds between supervising mentors and young astronauts and that it begin a basic change in agency culture.
"Some recommendations entail changing deep seated, long standings aspects of astronaut, flight surgeon, and safety cultures regarding alcohol use, code of conduct, acknowledgements of human performance issues, selection, training, evaluation and professional development, communication, and privacy," the panel wrote. "None of these issues lend themselves to easy analysis or correction of a single factor."