House Panel Urges NASA for More Open Communication
NASA administrator Michael Griffin, right, listens as Bryan O'Connor, a former astronaut and shuttle accident investigator, speaks during a news conference at NASA headquarters in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007 to announce that in a review released Wednesday, no evidence was found that astronauts were drunk or had been drinking heavily before any space launch.
Credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh.

Discrepancies between an independent review of NASA's astronaut healthcare system and an in-house survey prompted lawmakers Thursday to urge more open communications among the U.S. space agency's ranks.

In July, an independent panel evaluating NASA's astronaut medical and behavioral services recommended a series of improvements for the agency's healthcare system. The panel also reported a pair of anecdotal accounts of drunk astronauts that were later allowed to fly despite safety concerns by fellow spaceflyers and flight surgeons.

But the results of a NASA internal investigation, released last week, found no evidence that the alleged incidents ever took place, or that safety concerns from the agency's flight surgeon corps have ever been brushed aside.

"The real question is, is there that comfortableness within the NASA flight safety operations that allows everyone to step forward without feeling somehow they're ostracized," said Congressman Bart Gordon (D-Tennessee), chair of the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee, during a Thursday space and aeronautics subcommittee hearing.   

U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann, a veteran flight surgeon who led the independent health panel for NASA, said the split between the two reports may be due to a continuing fear of professional repercussions among those working within the space agency. To avoid such obstacles, his panel pledged anonymity to NASA astronauts, flight surgeons and other agency employees interviewed during their healthcare evaluation.

"We believe this may represent continued fear and barriers to communications and may be cause for greater, not less, concern," Bachmann, commander of the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, told the subcommittee. "The pictures that are painted by the two reports are diametrically in opposition. The fact that they are not coming forward with similar concerns when NASA asks the questions, I believe, still represents a problem."

NASA's safety chief Bryan O'Connor, a former astronaut who conducted the agency's internal review, said that while he was unable to verify the independent panel's accounts, there was the possibility that those interviewed were reluctant to come forward.  

"There's always a chance that someone may not feel totally comfortable speaking to their safety guy," O'Connor told the subcommittee.

The space agency is now preparing a focused anonymous survey for its employees to help flush out any continuing concerns related to the independent panels' findings, O'Connor added.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told the subcommittee that the independent panel's accounts of alleged drunk astronauts, as well as the arrest of former astronaut Lisa Nowak earlier this year which spurred the agency to reevaluate its healthcare system, have "shaken the public confidence" in the U.S. space agency.

"The personal conduct of NASA's workforce, including our astronauts, must be of the highest standards, beyond reproach," said Griffin, adding that the agency demonstrates such excellence daily. "But in the face of the allegations and adversity which we've encountered recently we must ask and answer hard questions, and we've done that."

Ensuring an open communication environment has been a prime target of NASA since 2003, when investigators faulted the agency's internal culture as a contributor to the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its astronaut crew.

"The more general allegation is a cultural problem that needs attention from the top senior leadership," Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Florida) told Griffin during the hearing, referring to the alleged disregard of safety concerns in the independent report.

"Fighting cultural problems is a little bit like shadow boxing, because I think that you're administration has undertaken to change the culture of that reporting," Feeney said.

Griffin repeatedly urged space agency employees to come forward with any concerns they may have during his testimony before the committee.

"If there is anyone at NASA who has a concern, bring it forward. I need to hear it," Griffin said. "There's nothing more important to me in an agency like NASA than having an open, free, non-political discourse on topics."