By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007
NASA officials at least twice disregarded warnings from flight surgeons and astronauts that crew members who were 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 yesterday.
In one case, an apparently impaired astronaut was launched aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while the other involved a scrubbed space shuttle flight and a subsequent flight the same day on a NASA training aircraft.
"These two incidents of alcohol use were chosen to illustrate a larger problem," said Col. Richard E. Bachmann Jr., head of the review panel created early this year.
Bachmann said flight surgeons and astronauts had reported the incidents to superiors and that "their professional input seemed to be disregarded at the local level, leaving them feeling demoralized about reporting in the future."
The panel's findings carried echoes of the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia space shuttle disasters. In both of those cases, investigators concluded that NASA managers had failed to heed warning flags that should have alerted them to potentially catastrophic dangers as they pressed to keep up with demanding flight schedules.
NASA 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 astronauts are quarantined to prepare for launches.
Bachmann and NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale emphasized that the reports of pre-launch drinking were unconfirmed and had come from personnel who did not necessarily have firsthand knowledge. Bachmann, an aerospace medical specialist with the Air Force, said the panel decided not to press for details on when, or precisely where, the heavy drinking occurred because its main concern was that warnings from flight surgeons and astronauts had apparently been ignored.
Dale said in a news conference that the agency takes the reports seriously and will begin a broad inquiry. She also said efforts have begun to ensure that the concerns of flight surgeons and astronauts about the well-being of crew members are quickly and seriously considered.
Bryan D. O'Connor, chief of the office of safety and mission assurance, will conduct the inquiry, Dale said, and if "any incidents occurred, he will determine the causes and recommend corrective actions." She said the agency will make sure that any risky astronaut behavior is "dealt with by appropriate medical authorities and flight crew management, and, if necessary, elevated through a transparent system of senior management review."
The panel said NASA's policies and procedures are not well-suited for dealing with potentially troublesome drinking by astronauts.
"The medical certification of astronauts for flight duty is not structured to detect such episodes, nor is any medical surveillance program by itself likely to detect them or change the pattern of alcohol use," the panel wrote.
Another recommendation by the panel -- which was formed after the arrest of former astronaut Lisa M. Nowak on charges that she tried to kidnap a rival for the affections of another astronaut -- was to develop a formal code of conduct for the elite corps. Dale said a group of astronauts has begun putting together elements of a code.
The report was quickly flagged by some members of Congress as a sign of more trouble at NASA. The House Space and Aeronautics subcommittee announced that it will hold hearings on the reports 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," Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said in a statement.
"But it's not just alcohol abuse," Gordon added. "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 panel recommended that NASA strengthen the formal bonds between supervising mentors and young astronauts and that it work toward a basic change in the agency's culture. It acknowledged that some of that culture is entrenched, going back to the earliest days of the space program when, historians say, test pilots and astronauts were often fast-living, hard-drinking men.
The allegations of widespread drinking are at sharp variance with the squeaky-clean, "best and brightest" image that the agency has since sought to cultivate. Ellen Ochoa, an astronaut and director of flight crew operations, said the reports of astronaut drinking are inconsistent with her long association with the program and represent "events that baffle us."
The panel wrote: "Some recommendations entail changing deep seated, long standing aspects of astronaut, flight surgeon, and safety cultures regarding alcohol use, code of conduct, acknowledgement of human performance issues, selection, training, evaluation and professional development, communication, and privacy. None of these issues lend themselves to easy analysis or correction of a single factor."