NASA to Investigate Claims That Astronauts Flew After Drinking
NASA officials answer questions during a news conference to discuss the findings of two reviews regarding astronaut medical and behavioral health assessments, at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

This story was updated at 4:58 p.m. EDT.

NASA has launched an investigation into claims that astronauts have flown despite appearing intoxicated based on a report by an independent health panel, the space agency said Friday.

"At this point, we're dealing with allegations and we need to find out what the ground truth is," NASA associate administrator Shana Dale said in a press briefing.

The investigation, as well as a new interim policy pertaining to alcohol use by spaceflyers prior to launch, stem from the findings of an independent review of NASA's astronaut health care system. The 12-page report, along with an internal NASA review on the agency's behavioral and medical practices, was released Friday.

U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann, Jr., a veteran flight surgeon who chaired the independent panel, said his committee found at least two instances in which a crewmember had reportedly drank heavily before flight. One involved astronauts flying aboard a NASA shuttle and T-38 aircraft, while the other relating to Russian Soyuz flight to the International Space Station, he said.

In one of the accounts, Bachmann said, an astronaut reported concerns over a fellow spaceflyer's condition after a shuttle launch was delayed, when the orbiter crew was leaving NASA's Florida spacewalk aboard on of the agency's T-38 training jets. But in both reports, he stressed, the astronauts or flight surgeons with concerns felt their input was disregarded, as the spaceflyers in question were ultimately allowed to fly.

"We cannot say with any certainty whether they, in fact, were at all under the influence or affected at the time they flew," Bachmann said of the astronauts in question, who were not named in the report, nor were the times, dates or specific missions of each account. "The issue of concern was that the medical advisors or the peers, who should be empowered to raise questions, felt like they were not."

Only about four paragraphs of the 12-page report were devoted to alcohol use of astronauts before flight.

Based on the recommendations from the two reports, Dale said NASA plans to devise an official astronaut code of conduct, as well as include a behavioral assessment to the annual flight physicals of its spaceflyers. The agency will also enhance the use of psychological evaluations for future astronaut selections and strive to ensure that safety concerns can be raised freely, she added.??

NASA launched both astronaut health reviews in the days following the Feb. 5 arrest of former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak. Florida police officers arrested Nowak in a parking lot at the Orlando International Airport after she allegedly attacked a woman that authorities said she perceived as a romantic rival for the affections of then-space shuttle astronaut Williams Oefelein.

Nowak has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping, battery and burglary with assault. NASA dismissed both Nowak and Oefelein from their astronaut duties earlier this year.

New policy in place

Dale and Ellen Ochoa, NASA's director of flight crew operations, said an interim spaceflight policy that prohibits astronauts from drinking alcohol in the 12 hours before a launch is now in place. That policy, taken from the agency's standing regulations governing flights of its T-38 training aircraft, was previously unofficially applied to human spaceflight, Ochoa said.

Meanwhile, NASA safety and mission assurance chief Bryan O'Conner has discussed the new policy with the commander and lead flight surgeon of the agency's next shuttle mission currently set for an Aug. 7 launch , Dale said.

In the week before launch, a shuttle astronaut crew enters quarantine to avoid developing sickness in flight. During that time, astronauts work through prelaunch activities, but their actions are not regulated during their off-duty time. Alcoholic beverages are freely available at NASA's astronaut crew quarters, NASA said.

"They are really responsible adults," Dale said of NASA's astronauts. "After they've finished their regular day of work, if they want to go back to crew quarters and have a beer I think that's okay."

In Kazakhstan, where U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts enter quarantine for up to three weeks before launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome, there is a preflight ceremony with champagne though NASA officials said they couldn't recall Americans actually drinking it.

"For them it's a great tradition in their society," Ochoa said of NASA's Russian counterparts, adding that it dates back to the first flight of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin nearly 50 years ago. NASA will talk with its spaceflyers to ensure the traditions of its Russian partners are properly respected, Ochoa added.

Former astronauts lamented that the report's anonymous anecdotes of astronaut drinking might tarnish the 26-year reputation of NASA and its shuttle flying astronaut corps.

"It doesn?t fit with anything, anything that I?ve ever seen or heard," said former astronaut Tom Jones, who flew on four shuttle missions between 1994 and 2001. "I flew with about 20 people on four missions and I never saw anybody with any kind of problem in the hours before launch."

Jones said that, based on his experience with NASA flight surgeons and fellow astronauts, he finds it hard to believe that a spaceflyer would be cleared for flight with a known performance deficit, especially in an era that has seen two shuttle disasters - Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 - that ended in astronaut fatalities.

"There's no upside to letting this guy get a pass," Jones said. "This is where it all comes down to doing the job and doing it 100 percent effectively."

Space News Staff Writer Brian Berger contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.