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The Wrong Stuff

For decades, astronauts have been built up to be larger-than-life heroes - and now we have a larger-than-life space scandal that has at least temporarily pushed Lindsay, Paris and Britney below the fold. Britney may not always wear panties, but let me know when she starts wearing diapers.

The buzz over the astronaut love triangle - focusing on Lisa Nowak, an astronaut who went after the purported girlfriend of fellow astronaut Bill Oefelein - is quickly entering its second phase: Does this episode point to the excesses of a "superstar culture" at NASA, where a blind eye is too often turned toward the indiscretions of its space fliers? Or does it merely prove that astronauts are people (and therefore sometimes unhinged), too?

Former NASA flight surgeon Pat Santy manages to argue both points on her "Dr. Sanity" Weblog - insisting that it should come as no surprise that astronauts can get tangled up in toxic romantic entanglements, but also faulting NASA for encouraging narcissism in the astronaut corps:

"The NASA celebrity culture - like the Washington political culture and the west-coast Hollywood culture - creates these monsters by the uncritical adoration and reverence they give to anyone with a certain job description. Is it shocking therefore that astronauts, politicians, and movie stars behave like the demigods they have been convinced they are? NASA has just had a wake-up call. The powers that be at NASA have always known that astronauts are only human, but over the years they have managed to keep all the bad behavior out of the spotlight and pretend that there is only the good. ..."

Jonathan Clark, another former NASA flight surgeon and the widower of fallen Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark, touched on a similar theme in comments to USA Today. He said NASA had long overlooked its astronauts' mental troubles and extramarital affairs. "Now you see this is the consequence of not dealing with it - you have someone whose life is destroyed," USA Today's Traci Watson quoted him as saying. "Maybe they'll start dealing with it."

Historically, NASA hasn't served as a nanny for its fliers. In fact, if Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" is to be believed, some of the astronauts of the early space effort positively relished their bad-boy image. The Russians, too, had their cosmonauts who stepped over the line. NBC News space analyst Jim Oberg cites the case of Soviet cosmonaut Grigory Nelyubov, who got into an embarrassing fracas and was literally airbrushed out of the space picture (here's a before-and-after comparison).

Today, the New York Times' John Tierney hints in a backhanded way that a little bit of the Wrong Stuff just might spice up NASA's current dishwater-gray image. And the Defamer blog is already casting the TV movie (with Toni Collette as Lisa Nowak and "a Tony Shalhoub type" as Oefelein).

Tierney suggests that the best way to get a human mission to Mars funded is to stage it as a reality-TV show, cast to maximize romance and ratings. Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg, however, notes that the potential for love triangles (or other polygons) during a 500-day round trip to Mars is the "nightmare of the psychs at NASA."

Personally, I think Tierney is on the right track - maybe not about turning the space race into a TV ratings race, but about turning more of the spotlight to the private sector in the years to come. The days of the space shuttle fleet are almost literally numbered - and even if Nowak hadn't pulled out the pepper spray, the chances of her flying again anytime before the shuttle's successor enters service in 2014 would have been slim.

By that time, former NASA astronauts such as Hoot Gibson (working for Benson Space) John Herrington (Rocketplane Kistler), Wendy Lawrence (Andrews Space), Rick Searfoss (XCOR Aerospace) and Jim Voss (t/Space) may be right back in the Right Stuff business - in an environment that's more like the airline industry and less like "Peyton Place."