IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

NASA responds to claims of drinking problem

An independent panel was told that intoxicated NASA astronauts were allowed to fly on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and cleared to fly on the space shuttle, the panel's chairman said Friday. In response, NASA said it is launching an investigation and will change its policies.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

An independent panel was told that intoxicated NASA astronauts were allowed to fly on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and cleared to fly on the space shuttle, the panel's chairman said Friday.

In response, NASA said it is launching an investigation to try to verify the allegations, will embrace an astronaut code of conduct and would weigh changes in its drinking policies.

The two specific allegations about alcohol use were contained in the independent panel's report, released Friday. Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann Jr., who chaired the panel, provided additional details during a NASA news briefing in Washington.

Speaking over a telephone link, Bachmann said the Soyuz case involved a NASA astronaut who was cleared for launch to the international space station, even though there was a concern that the astronaut's alcohol consumption raised a flight risk. In the case involving the shuttle, Bachmann said the mission was delayed for mechanical reasons and the astronaut wanted to fly a jet from Florida back home to Houston. A fellow astronaut voiced concern about the flier's alcohol use, Bachmann said. He said he didn’t know the outcome.

Bachmann said the incidents were representative of the kinds of reports he and other panel members heard about alcohol use in the astronaut corps. He stressed, however, that his panel did not independently verify the accounts given by flight surgeons and astronauts.

“In none of these can we say factually they did or did not occur,” he said. Bachmann said it was not the panel’s mission to investigate allegations, and that NASA would have to ferret out the details.

The independent panel was created by NASA to assess its health screening after the high-profile arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak in February after she drove across the country to confront a romantic rival.

The internal review focused on the issue of psychological screening of astronauts, and specifically on Nowak's case. The independent panel also dealt with screening procedures but did not refer by name to Nowak or any other astronaut.

The drinking allegations were a new humiliation for the space agency. Headline writers in newspapers and on the Web had as much fun as they did with the arrest of Nowak.

“Sauced in Space.” “NASA: Shaken and Stirred.” “Three-Martini Launch.” “Houston, we have a drinking problem.” The New York Post incorporated two giant bottles of Grey Goose vodka into a photo of the space shuttle.

NASA’s top managers said they were unaware of any astronauts who were drunk before a flight but promised to investigate further.

"We will act immediately on the more troubling aspects of this report," NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said during Friday's briefing. Bryan O'Connor, NASA's chief of safety and mission assurance, was in charge of the investigation, she said.

Bachmann said he was "very glad to hear" that NASA was taking action.

NASA has long had a policy that prohibits any drinking in the 12 hours before an astronaut flies a training jet. The space agency said that policy has historically been applied to spaceflights, too. But as a result of the panel’s report, the rule will officially be applied to spaceflights, NASA said. An astronaut code of conduct also is in the works.

Dale said the commander of the next space shuttle mission, set for launch Aug. 7, has already met with O'Connor to discuss the allegations and the behavior expectations for the upcoming flight. Both commander Scott Kelly and the crew’s flight surgeon were encouraged to raise any safety issues, Dale said.

Bachmann, an aerospace medical specialist with the Air Force, said his panel deliberately did not seek out pertinent details on alcohol use, such as exactly when the heavy drinking occurred. The overriding concern, he said, was that flight surgeons were ignored.

"There’s certainly no intent to impugn the entire astronaut corps," Bachmann said. "We don’t have enough data to call it alcohol abuse. We have no way of knowing if these are the only two incidents that have ever occurred in the history of the astronaut corps or if they’re the tip of a very large iceberg."

The independent panel said astronauts and flight surgeons told the committee about heavy drinking by crew members just before flights. Also, the panel said alcohol is "freely used in crew quarters," where astronauts are quarantined at the Kennedy Space Center in the three days before launch.

Only four paragraphs of the 12-page report dealt with alcohol use by astronauts.

"Two specific instances were described where astronauts had been so intoxicated prior to flight that flight surgeons and-or fellow astronauts raised concerns to local on-scene leadership regarding flight safety," the panel. "However, the individuals were still permitted to fly."

The eight-member panel included experts in aerospace medicine and medical legal matters, and clinical psychiatrists, all affiliated with government agencies. Fourteen astronauts, all but one with spaceflight experience, were interviewed by the panel, as well as five family members. In addition, eight flight surgeons were interviewed.

Based on those interviews, the panel said NASA was not set up in such a way to deal with alcohol use 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.

The panel recommended that NASA hold individuals and supervisors accountable for responsible use of alcohol, and that policies be instituted involving drinking before flight.

Dale accepted many of the panel's recommendations, including one calling for a formal code of conduct for astronauts to follow. She said astronauts and flight surgeons would be surveyed anonymously to gather input for new policies. She also said the agency would step up its efforts to encourage "open communication," particularly about safety concerns.

Some of the independent panel's observations echoed concerns raised by the panel investigating the 2003 Columbia tragedy. That panel said NASA's top managers often ignored concerns raised by lower-level employees, to such an extent that the agency had a "broken safety culture." Dale said the new report indicated that more cultural changes may be in order.

"Changes in culture do not happen overnight," she said.

Bachmann and his group acknowledged that some of the cultural issues cited in the report have existed since the beginning of the astronaut program. NASA's earliest astronauts were fighter pilots who often lived and drank hard; that was the essence of being a test pilot, recalled Seymour Himmel, a retired NASA executive.

“I remember some of our pilots used to say they didn’t drink within 12 feet of a ship or smoke the day before,” he said with a laugh. “These were very good test pilots.”

In another finding, the panel reported that flight surgeons’ medical opinions were not valued by higher-ups. Several senior flight surgeons told the panel that officials only wanted to hear that all medical systems "were 'go' for on-time mission completion."

The flight surgeons told the panel that higher-ups in NASA were notified of "major crew medical or behavioral problems," but that the flight surgeons’ medical advice was ignored.

"This disregard was described as 'demoralizing' to the point where they said they are less likely to report concerns of performance decrement," the panel wrote. "Crew members raised concerns regarding substandard astronaut task performance which were similarly disregarded."

The panel recommended that astronauts have psychiatric evaluations as part of their yearly physical exams. Their report said astronauts don’t undergo psychiatric reviews after they are selected unless they are picked for a long mission.

Lisa Nowak case reviewed
Annual psychiatric evaluations also emerged as a recommendation in the Johnson Space Center report. The internal report said that such evaluations should also be conducted as part of the flight assessments for shuttle crew members, and that an assessment of fitness for flight duties should be given more weight in astronaut medical selections.

In the report, NASA investigators said "there were no indications that something could have predicted" what Nowak was accused of doing in February. Nowak, who flew into space a year ago on the shuttle Discovery, is facing charges of assaulting Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman at Orlando International Airport in Florida because she was considered a rival for the affections of astronaut Bill Oefelein.

"Some employees mentioned that Nowak could sometimes be demanding and difficult to work with; however, she was viewed as being extremely capable, competent and hardworking," the report said.

The report said a few employees said Nowak "seemed a little stressed" after her flight, and that she was "difficult and rude to workers" during a public appearance in New York last October. A couple of people reportedly mentioned that she was "a little disappointed" when she missed out on a crew assignment in December. But none of those interviewed could think of any behavior that could have alerted them to Nowak's subsequent actions, the report said.

"Prior to the incident, most of the employees interviewed said they had not noticed a change in Nowak's behavior and were shocked when they heard what happened," the report said.

This report includes information from The Associated Press, Reuters and