Personnel Woes Trouble U.S. Space Program

It never rains but it pours for the U.S. space agency these days. As if having one of its Shuttle astronauts facing criminal charges for assaulting a romantic rival or having a gunman open fire at its Houston complex wasn't enough for NASA administrators, now they have revealed that some of their space travelers may have been flying under the influence of alcohol and that one of their subcontractors has tried to sabotage a mission-critical computer.

At a press conference today, a NASA spokesperson said that the arrest of former astronaut Lisa Nowak last February had prompted the agency to launch a study of the overall "medical and behavioral health services available to NASA astronauts at the Johnson Space Center." As part of that review, chaired by Col. Richard Bachmann, Commander of the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, troubling reports of alcohol consumption near mission times arose.

"[W]e will act immediately on the more troubling aspects of the report, with respect to alcohol use and the anecdotal references to resistance of Agency leadership to accepting advice or criticisms about the fitness and readiness of individuals for space flight," NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said in her opening remarks. "The report does not provide specific information about alcohol-related incidents and the Review Committee has left it to NASA to determine the scope of these alleged incidents."

She then added that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has directed the head of the agency's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance to undertake a full investigation of the matter. "If any incidents occurred, he will determine the causes and recommend corrective actions," Dale noted. "He also will review all existing policies and procedures related to alcohol use and space flight crew medical fitness during the immediate preflight preparation period to ensure that any risks to flight safety are dealt with by appropriate medical authorities and flight crew management, and, if necessary, elevated through a transparent system of senior management review and accountability."

Nevertheless, Dale said the restrictions on alcohol consumption prior to training missions will remain the same as those on space flight missions: no drinking 12 hours prior to takeoff -- the so-called bottle-to-throttle rule. And she assured the public that a "comprehensive review of alcohol use policy prior to aircraft use or space flight is underway."

Equally sobering was news from yesterday that engineers had discovered a computer bound for the International Space Station (ISS) during the upcoming launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour had been sabotaged. In fact, what NASA's leaders really wanted to focus on today was the "Go" status of the Endeavour for launch on 7 August given yesterday. However, outside factors have largely overwhelmed that positive message.

In the case of the intentionally damaged computer, first reported by the Associated Press, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said an unidentified employee, who works for a NASA subcontractor, cut wires inside the computer, which is supposed to measure the strain on a space station beam and relay the information to flight controllers on Earth. Gerstenmaier said that the damage had been detected by the subcontractor and had subsequently been repaired.

"The damage is very obvious. It's easy to detect. It's not a mystery to us," Gerstenmaier commented. He declined to speculate on the alleged saboteur's possible motivation. "There's an active investigation going on and I'd rather let that get handled that way," he said.

So all in all, it was another rough day for NASA managers in the human space-flight business, in a season of sporadic rough days this year. It's nothing they can't handle, though. When your motto is per aspera ad astra -- "through adversity to the stars" -- you should be able to take a little bruising.

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Advertisement