After finding no evidence of astronauts drinking before launching into space, NASA said Wednesday it is considering limited alcohol testing of its employees, including astronauts.
An internal investigation recommended alcohol testing while at the same time clearing astronauts of much-publicized drinking allegations. In response, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said he would come up with a policy for testing after a mishap or when there are suspicions of substance abuse.
“I think if there are concerns about the integrity of our processes, then if we have such testing, we will be able to allay those concerns,” Griffin told reporters. “So I would view such testing as a vindication rather than as an indictment.”
The review released Wednesday could not verify two drinking allegations described by an independent panel last month, and Griffin said they just didn’t happen. The report did acknowledge the availability of alcohol in crew quarters, noting that non-flying astronauts made booze-buying runs for their quarantined colleagues.
The 45-page report by NASA safety chief Bryan O’Connor, a former astronaut and shuttle accident investigator, was initiated after the July report on astronaut health by eight medical experts.
“I was unable to verify any case in which an astronaut spaceflight crewmember was impaired on launch day” or any case where a manager disregarded warnings from another NASA employee that an astronaut not fly, said O’Connor’s report.
However, O’Connor said NASA doctors should play a stronger “oversight” role on launch day, accompanying astronauts as they suit up for launch. O’Connor also recommended that excessive drinking be added to NASA’s list of risky activities forbidden for astronauts in the year before launch, along with motorcycle racing, parachuting and firefighting.
A 1991 law directs NASA to come up with a policy for alcohol testing of employees as recommended by O’Connor, but it never has done so before, Griffin said at a news conference. He said the agency will now start the long process of coming up with a testing policy.
“The issue is just how far we go,” he said after the conference.
The chairman of the independent panel, Air Force Col. Richard E. Bachman Jr., commander and dean of the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, declined comment on the internal review through a military spokesman.
O’Connor’s review looked back 20 years and involved interviews with 90 NASA officials, astronauts and flight surgeons. Twenty flight surgeons signed an e-mail to O’Connor saying they have never seen any drunken astronauts before a launch or training jet flight.
O’Connor looked through 40,134 government and contractor reports of mishaps and problems dating back through 1984 — many of them anonymous — and none of them involved alcohol or drug abuse by astronauts.
Both O’Connor and Griffin said in their decades of work in the space program they have never seen a NASA employee report for duty under the influence of alcohol.
Tequila in the cupboard
The safety chief toured crew quarters at space centers in both Houston and Cape Canaveral, Fla., as the astronauts were in quarantine days before launch of the shuttle Endeavour earlier this month.
“I saw one half-empty bottle of tequila in one of the cupboards,” O’Connor wrote. He also said beer and wine are available from non-flying astronauts making booze runs.
Still, beer and wine consumption now seems less than what was reported in the 1980s and early 1990s, O’Connor reported. It’s usually moderate amounts of wine or beer at dinner, during off-duty times, and a far higher percentage of current astronauts are teetotalers these days, he wrote.
He also noted that “the lack of privacy on launch day makes it nearly impossible to hide alcohol use or alcohol-induced impairment.”
“There are reasonable safeguards in place to prevent an impaired crew member from ever boarding a spacecraft,” O’Connor said at the news conference.
Sparked by scandal
The careful look at astronaut health issues grew out of the scandal earlier this year involving astronaut Lisa Nowak, accused of the assault and attempted kidnapping of a romantic rival.
The first report, by the independent panel in July, said: “Interviews with both flight surgeons and astronauts identified some episodes of heavy use of alcohol by astronauts in the immediate preflight period, which has led to safety concerns.”
One instance involved a shuttle astronaut that a colleague claimed had had too much to drink; the colleague alerted others only after the launch was delayed because of mechanical problems.
O’Connor, using the clues in that report, focused on three missions between 1990 and 1995. He spoke to at least two astronauts on each of those missions and the astronaut chiefs at the time and no one verified the claims.
The other alleged incident involved an astronaut drinking alcohol before flying on a Russian Soyuz capsule to the international space station.
Drinking small champagne toasts is part of a “special ceremony” before cosmonauts go to the launch pad in Kazakhstan, O’Connor wrote. He reported that one non-drinking American worried about not imbibing, but was told by Russian flight surgeons it was OK not to drink.
In both cases — in which no names were given — the July report said that flight surgeons and/or fellow astronauts raised safety worries with nearby officials in charge, yet “the individuals were still permitted to fly.”
Griffin and O’Connor said they were convinced that no such thing happened. O’Connor said the independent panel was conveying information given to them under the protection of anonymity. The panel would not reveal its sources, he said.
Griffin said he had the opportunity to look at the private medical records involved in the Soyuz incident and said there was no drunken astronaut. When asked how the story arose, he drew a comparison to the oft-repeated apocryphal tales about tainted Halloween candy.
“There is a Web site for urban legends — go look it up,” he told journalists. “There are quite a number of things out there that are cited that are not true. This is one of them.”
This report was supplemented by MSNBC.com.