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