NASA denies astronauts flew drunk

The Baltimore Sun

NASA officials said yesterday that they have found no evidence that any astronauts ever flew while inebriated, or even showed up for work impaired, as was recently asserted by an outside investigative panel.

In particular, agency Administrator Michael D. Griffin said an account of an unnamed astronaut flying drunk on a Russian Soyuz flight was false.

"I'm saying I think our guys are doing a heck of a job, and these allegations are untrue," Griffin said at a briefing in Washington.

His remarks came with the release of a 45-page internal review of the claims made in July by a panel that criticized the culture of NASA's astronaut corps in the wake of the Lisa Nowak case.

Nowak, a shuttle astronaut, was arrested earlier this year in Orlando, Fla., and accused of stalking and attacking a rival for the affections of a male astronaut. This week, she announced plans to mount an insanity defense.

As a result of Nowak's arrest, Griffin asked an outside panel to look into astronaut health and safety issues to see whether NASA should be doing more to make sure its astronauts were not going into space suffering from debilitating mental or physical problems.

That panel, based on anonymous reports, identified "some episodes of heavy use of alcohol by astronauts in the immediate preflight period."

The report cited two instances of alcohol abuse before flights, one in Kazakhstan.

The new report issued yesterday was chaired by NASA safety officer Bryan O'Connor, who said he reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents and consulted scores of current and former astronauts and flight surgeons.

"I was unable to verify any case in which an astronaut spaceflight crew member was impaired on launch," O'Connor said in the report. Neither could he find a case in which a manager disregarded warnings from another NASA employee that an astronaut should not be allowed to fly.

Twenty flight surgeons signed an e-mail to O'Connor saying they never have seen an astronaut drunk before a launch or flight on a training jet.

O'Connor's review included an inspection of crew quarters in Houston and Cape Canaveral in Florida before the launch of the shuttle Endeavour this month, when the seven astronaut crew members were in quarantine.

He found a half-empty bottle of tequila in a cupboard. Beer and wine are sometimes brought in by non-flying astronauts, he said. On the whole, however, alcohol consumption today by astronauts seems to be less common than in previous decades, he said.

As for accounts of drinking on the run-up to a flight, he said "the lack of privacy on launch day makes it nearly impossible to hide alcohol use or alcohol-induced impairment."

Still, O'Connor's report recommended that NASA flight surgeons take a stronger role on the day of a launch by accompanying astronauts as they suit up. He also said NASA should look at instituting routine drug and alcohol testing for all employees, including astronauts.

O'Connor said he shared his failure to confirm the alcohol abuse reports with the panel that first aired them. Those panel members provided some additional detail but did not reveal the names of the NASA employees who initially reported the improper alcohol use, O'Connor said. The employees involved had asked for anonymity.

Griffin said he can't state categorically that no astronaut ever drank to excess before launch. "I can't prove a negative," he said.

All he could be sure of, he said, is that the specific anecdotes aired by the panel were untrue and every attempt by O'Connor to find any other incidents proved futile.

John Johnson Jr. writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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