NASA's latest blunder? Astronauts driving drunk

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Considering how image-conscious NASA is, the news couldn't have been more bizarre yesterday with the disclosure that some astronauts once blasted into orbit while blasted.

The bombshell, first revealed by the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology, is outlined in an internal report NASA is to make public Friday.

But to some former managers at the space agency, it was no surprise.

They spoke of a looser-ruled era in past decades when such drunken transgressions could have happened and been accepted by compliant flight surgeons.

But they also cautioned that controls have been tightened in the security-minded years after the 2003 loss of space shuttle Columbia.

“I'd be astonished if this has happened in the past five years,” said James Oberg, who spent 22 years as a rocket scientist for NASA, and has written books about space.

However, he added that “in the '80s and '90s there was a lot of astronaut abuse of medical and behavioural standards, because the supposed enforcers, the space-medicine people, often wanted to become astronauts themselves and didn't want any astronauts mad at them.”

Former NASA manager Keith Cowing also said he thought such incidents could have happened in the “old shuttle era.”

“Would I be surprised? No. But I'd be surprised if it happened a lot,” he said. “Ninety-nine per cent of the astronaut corps, you'd invite to your house for dinner. They're nice, good people. But there's a few in that bunch who like to push the envelope.”

The drunk-flying claims are outlined in reviews of astronaut medical and behavioural health that NASA ordered in the wake of the arrest of Lisa Nowak, the former astronaut charged with the attempted murder of a love rival.

Mr. Cowing said his understanding of the reviews is that they do not document the drinking revelation with specific dates, flights or names.

The agency issued no immediate comment on the matter yesterday.

But a NASA official told the Associated Press that the allegations are based on unsubstantiated, anonymous interviews.

The panel report says that on two occasions astronauts flew even after doctors and other astronauts warned they were a flight risk because they were drunk.

The report also talks of “heavy use of alcohol” by astronauts within the 12-hour period before launch.

Mr. Oberg said that in the 1980s and 1990s, some NASA officials clinched the loyalty of some astronauts by playing favourites and ignoring disciplinary problems.

“Very often people in charge of the astronauts abused their authority by using astronauts as their own escort, their own chauffeurs, their drinking buddies, their harem. And in turn, they protected those who kissed up to them.”

Shuttles typically carry five to seven crew members.

When a shuttle lifts into orbit, three astronauts, including the commander and the pilot, are on so-called ascent duty and must monitor the spacecraft's performance.

While other crew members are just sitting on a deck below, they must remain vigilant and get busy once in orbit, less than 10 minutes after launch.

“So you can't have three fliers and four comatose people up there along for the ride,” Mr. Oberg said.



Our commentary in the Globe and Mail

July 27, 2007

Ottawa Mens, from Ottawa, Canada) wrote: Personality disorders and or mental health problems are a taboo in our society. The fact that NASA hired an astronaut with severe personality disorder and or a mental health problem shows that they too simply ignored the fact that its a real problem and unfortunately suffered more often by women than men. Go to any Family Court in Ontario and dare to mention that a woman has a mental health problem and or a personality disorder and you will probably end up with an incredible order for costs against you by a man hating feminist judge with a real personality disorder and or a mental health problem. Our judiciary is riddled with these low lifes who seek power and play the survivor game or make political donations to gain Power. These same Power hungry characters demonstrate their personality disorders all to frequently in Family Court. The solution is that society needs to remove the taboo regarding the subject. We need psychological and personality screening for Judges otherwise society will continue with its dysfunctional judiciary that leaves a trail of destruction.