House Panel Urges NASA for More Open Communication

NASA Investigation Finds No Evidence Astronauts Were Drunk Before Flights
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. (Image credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh.)

Discrepanciesbetween an independent review of NASA's astronaut healthcare system and anin-house survey prompted lawmakers Thursday to urge more open communicationsamong the agency's ranks.

In July, anindependent panel evaluating NASA's astronaut medical and behavioral servicesrecommended a series of improvements for the agency's healthcare system. Thepanel also reported a pair of anecdotalaccounts of drunk astronauts that were laterallowed to fly despite safety concerns by fellow spaceflyersand flight surgeons.

But theresults of a NASA internal investigation, released lastweek, found no evidence that the alleged incidents ever took place, or thatsafety concerns from the agency's flight surgeon corps have ever been brushedaside.

"Thereal question is, is there that comfortableness within the NASA flight safetyoperations that allows everyone to step forward without feeling somehow they'reostracized," said Congressman Bart Gordon (D-Tennessee), chair of theHouse of Representatives Science and Technology Committee, during a Thursdayspace and aeronautics subcommittee hearing.   

U.S. AirForce Col. Richard Bachmann, a veteran flight surgeon who led the independenthealth panel for NASA, said the split between the two reports may be due to acontinuing fear of professional repercussions among those working within thespace agency. To avoid such obstacles, his panel pledged anonymity to NASAastronauts, flight surgeons and other agency employees interviewed during theirhealthcare evaluation.

"Webelieve this may represent continued fear and barriers to communications and maybe 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 inopposition. The fact that they are not coming forward with similar concernswhen NASA asks the questions, I believe, still represents a problem."

NASA'ssafety chief Bryan O'Connor, a former astronaut who conducted the agency'sinternal review, said that while he was unable to verify the independentpanel's accounts, there was the possibility that those interviewed werereluctant to come forward.  

"There'salways a chance that someone may not feel totally comfortable speaking to theirsafety guy," O'Connor told the subcommittee.

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

NASAAdministrator Michael Griffin told the subcommittee that the independentpanel's accounts of alleged drunk astronauts, as well as the arrest of formerastronaut Lisa Nowak earlier this year which spurred the agency toreevaluate its healthcare system, have "shaken the public confidence"in the U.S. space agency.

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

Ensuring anopen communication environment has been a prime target of NASA since 2003, wheninvestigators faulted theagency's internal culture as a contributor to the loss of the space shuttle Columbiaand its astronaut crew.

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

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

Griffinrepeatedly urged space agency employees to come forward with any concerns theymay have during his testimony before the committee.

"Ifthere is anyone at NASA who has a concern, bring it forward. I need to hearit," Griffinsaid. "There's nothing more important to me in an agency like NASA thanhaving an open, free, non-political discourse on topics."


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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.