updated 10/18/2007 3:13:12 PM ET 2007-10-18T19:13:12

This weekend as the seven astronauts relax before Tuesday's blastoff into space, the beer will be cold and waiting at crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center.

No one will monitor how much they drink, no breath tests given.

"We're all professionals," says Scott Kelly, commander of the last space shuttle mission in August.

While the outside world was aghast at a medical report a few months ago suggesting two cases of drunkenness just before launch, the men and women who fly NASA's space shuttles are indignant.

"It's just such an absurd thing to think that someone would even do that," said Kelly, a Navy commander. "I don't have the words to describe how ridiculous this whole thing is."

He and others agree there's no harm in having a beer a day or two out, and he did just that. During the three days before liftoff, the shuttle crew is in semi-isolation at dorm-style quarters or at the beach house where astronauts enjoy barbecues with their spouses.

Kelly's co-pilot, Charles Hobaugh, a burly Marine colonel, readily admits he's no teetotaler. But he says that coming into launch, his drink of choice is skim milk.

Their mission came just over a week after the controversial report by a special medical panel that mentioned inebriated astronauts, citing interviews with unnamed sources.

What made the anonymous allegations of heavy preflight drinking even worse is that they followed by just months the arrest of Lisa Nowak. The lovelorn astronaut chased her former astronaut-boyfriend's new love interest halfway across the country and ended up in jail. She intends to plead temporary insanity.

It was her case that led NASA to commission a panel of aerospace medical experts to look into the health of astronauts. Their report in late July mentioned the two unverified episodes of drunkenness.

It's been tough on NASA's 91 astronauts, unaccustomed to bad press, let alone ridicule.

"Of course, there are jokes," said Army Col. Douglas Wheelock, a member of the new crew that will be flying Discovery on Tuesday. His family in the Northeast has called him wanting to know, "What's going on down there?"

He said the back-to-back scandals have reminded him "that people are looking up to me, not because of who I am, but because of the suit that I have on."

Peggy Whitson, who recently arrived on the international space station as commander, also has found herself treading carefully.

The drinking issue weighed heavily on her mind before her Oct. 10 launch aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where preflight toasting is the norm. She said it was "interesting" navigating between the U.S. and Russian cultural differences.

"We don't want people to have an image of us as being a bunch of drunks," she said in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week.

NASA's long-standing rule — unwritten but universally understood — is that alcohol is forbidden within 12 hours of a launch. No one denies that until then, "alcohol is freely used in crew quarters," as the astronaut health panel stated in its report. It based its findings on astronauts and flight surgeons who were promised anonymity.

Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon whose astronaut wife, Laurel, died aboard Columbia, said he saw plenty of partying in the few days before launch.

"It really got to be kind of crazy," he said, when missions were abruptly scrubbed — a common occurrence because of changing weather or mechanical problems.

"You have this buildup of tension. You go out there and then it gets scrubbed, then you don't know when you're going to go. ... There were definitely times when people drank during that period. Duh. But I don't think it was ever an issue before a mission, like the day of or the day before."

There still is no conclusive evidence that astronauts, at Cape Canaveral or on Soyuz flights from Kazakhstan, were intoxicated right before launch.

NASA's own hunt for details came up empty after poring through 20 years' worth of records and contacting key players.

The chairman of the independent astronaut health panel that issued the report, Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann Jr., contends the sources of the confidential information are too afraid to speak up.

NASA is following up with an anonymous survey of its astronauts and flight surgeons. At the same time, the space agency hopes to have in place by year's end a code of conduct that spells out the prelaunch drinking ban.

"If there was anything that created a problem for us, frankly it was the report," said retired Air Force Col. Pamela Melroy, the commander of the upcoming mission on Discovery.

Warranted or not, Clark believes this year's turbulence is an opportunity for NASA and, in particular, its astronaut corps to improve.

"It's like a football team that's got a really bad record. You've got to pull yourself up and reinvent yourself and do a better job," he said. "In my estimation, it could be one of the best things that happens to NASA."

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