Ellen Ochoa, director of flight operations, NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston answers questions during a news conference to discuss the findings of two reviews regarding astronaut medical and behavioral health assessments today.
Bill Ingalls / AP Enlarge
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - After drinking heavily, an astronaut flew on a Russian spacecraft and another was cleared to launch on a space shuttle, according to interviews by a panel of outside experts, the panel's chairman said Friday.
In the case of the shuttle, the mission was delayed for mechanical reasons and the astronaut wanted to fly a jet from Florida back home to Houston, said Col. Richard Bachmann Jr., head of the panel, created to assess astronaut health. He said he didn't know the outcome.
"In none of these can we say factually they did or did not occur," he added, speaking by telephone to a news conference held in Washington. He said it was not the panel's mission to investigate allegations and that NASA would have to ferret out details.
The independent panel was created by NASA after the arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak in February on charges she tried to kidnap her rival in a love triangle.
NASA said it is unaware of any astronauts who were drunk before a flight but that it is investigating. Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said the panel provided no details and did not verify the troubling revelations and promised the space agency would pursue the truth.
Bachmann, an aerospace medical specialist with the Air Force, said his panel deliberately did not seek out pertinent details, 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."
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.
The commander of the next space shuttle mission, set for launch Aug. 7, has already met with NASA's chief safety official 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.
The panel said that 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 the 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.
The panel said that NASA is 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.
Bachmann and his group acknowledged that some of the cultural issues cited in the report have existed since the beginning of the astronaut program. The early spacemen 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.
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.
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