NASA: Pre-Flight Astronauts Weren't Tanked

A preliminary report suggesting astronauts may have been drunk prior to lift-off makes the front pages of the world's newspapers. A final report claiming the space fliers were not intoxicated can, at best, only hope to make it to page 2. That's the nature of the news business: bad news sells papers. So don't expect to see a lot of play in the press today over a report just issued by the U.S. space agency that says its astronauts were not impaired by alcohol prior to the countdown to space missions.

In a safety review made public today, NASA's chief of Safety and Mission Assurance, Bryan O'Connor, concluded a month-long review of allegations included in an internal report in July that mentioned incidents of possible overindulgence, by saying he found no evidence that flight mission personnel had ever been impaired by alcohol when they flew in space.

"I have said many times during the past weeks that NASA takes these allegations very seriously -- just as we would any issues that could impact the safety of our missions," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told a news conference at NASA Headquarters, in Washington, D.C. "But at the same time, I also have said that the stories cited in the report seem improbable to those of us familiar with the astronauts' rigorous and very public activities during the hours leading up to a space flight."

O'Connor's investigation examined evidence from over two decades of space travel by agency employees and guests. These included:

  • Approximately 90 interviews with participants and witnesses to the last few days before shuttle and Soyuz launches, including current and former astronauts, flight surgeons, research and operations support nurses, shuttle suite technicians, closeout crew technicians, and the managers and staff of crew quarters, including managers familiar with the crew quarters in Kazakhstan.

  • A review of more than 40 000 records dating back to 1984, including mishap and close call reports, anonymous safety reports, safety hotline reports, and disciplinary actions involving alcohol and drugs. These records cover 94 shuttle missions and 10 Soyuz missions.

  • A review of relevant policies, procedures, and near-launch timelines and staffing.

  • An inspection of crew quarters at Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

According to NASA, O'Connor interviewed nearly 80 percent of active astronauts and all current operational flight surgeons. None of them corroborated allegations of pre-flight alcohol use or claims that management disregarded flight surgeon concerns about alcohol impairment and astronauts' fitness to fly.

"My review represents a good deal more investigation than normally would be done in response to an anonymous safety concern," O'Connor said. "As a result, I am confident there are enough safeguards in place to prevent an impaired crewmember from being strapped into a spacecraft."

The space agency added that it is finalizing additional guidelines for astronaut behavior during all phases of their duties. Known as the "Expected Astronaut Principles of Behavior," the regulations would become a formal code of conduct for U.S. space travelers, on the ground and in flight. Furthermore, NASA said it is adjusting existing policies and procedures to enhance the psychological and behavioral health reviews of astronauts at all stages of readiness evaluation.

In this space one month ago, I wrote a column on how it never seems to rain but it pours on NASA these days, what with an erratic astronaut attacking a romantic rival and an incident of deliberate sabotage revealed. Now, the disaffected astronaut, Capt. Lisa Marie Nowak (USN), will plead not guilty by reason of insanity when her case goes to trial next month, according to an account from Reuters.

The O'Connor report and the announcement of Nowak's decision, along with the successful completion of the recent mission of Endeavour to the International Space Station, should begin to lift some of the gloom from the skies over the U.S. space program as it attempts to right its reputation. Once more, the words per aspera ad astra -- "through adversity to the stars" -- come to mind again.

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