Astronaut Survey Finds no Evidence of Launch Day Drinking

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: © AP Photo/Susan Walsh.)

A survey ofNASA astronauts and flight surgeons has turned up no evidence that U.S. spaceflyers were drunk on launch day and revealed a desire for more transparency inhow crews are selected for spaceflight.

Theanonymous survey, released Wednesday, did find one report of ?perceived impairment?in an astronaut in the days before liftoff, which was later was traced to aninteraction between prescription medication and alcohol, said former shuttle astronautEllen Ochoa, NASA?s deputy director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In thataccount, the astronaut was ultimately cleared for flight and launched intospace, agency health officials added.

NASA healthofficials said that they did not know if the incident was one of two anecdotal accountsclaiming that a spaceflyer was drunk just hours before launch. The claims, onerelated to a shuttle flight and the other to a Russian Soyuz mission, wereincluded in an independent panel review ofastronaut health released last year.

?We reallynever understood from the beginning exactly what might have led to the commentin the health care report,? Ochoa said Wednesday. ?We have tried to run it toground. We haven't uncovered anything. I don't know of any issues associatedwith alcohol before flight.?

NASAregulations prohibit the use of alcohol within 12 hours of launch time. Thepolicy, initially an unofficial guideline adapted from its T-38 jet flight rules,was officially adopted for human spaceflight last year. The agency?s astronautcorps is also putting the finishing touches on its own code of conduct manual,Ochoa said.

NASAcommissioned the anonymous survey in the wake of a report last July by an independentastronaut health review led by U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann, Jr., whichitself was spurred by the arrest February 2007 of the now former spaceflyerLisa Nowak. Nowak was charged with the attempted kidnapping and burglarywith assault of a romantic rival for a fellow astronaut?s affections. She haspleaded not guilty and her attorney plans to pursue a temporaryinsanity defense.

Bachmann?sreview panel reported some accounts of astronauts and flight surgeons who felttheir concerns over the anecdotal drinking claims were disregarded by their managers.

But in thenew survey, those polled indicated that astronauts and flight surgeons had ahealthy relationship, and were unafraid to bring up safety concerns with theirsuperiors. The survey polled all 31 of NASA?s current flight surgeons and 87 ofthe 98 active astronauts between August and December of last year.

?Theresponse rate of the survey was 91 percent, a rate well above what you wouldnormally expect in a survey,? Ochoa said. ?That indicates the seriousness withwhich astronauts and flight surgeons approached this survey.?

Onerecurring theme among astronauts who took the survey was the desire for abetter understanding of how feedback on a spaceflyer?s technical skills orperformance is affects career decisions and crew assignments, space agencyofficials said.

?We have takentheir opinions and recommendations and are formulating the way forward on thisissue,? Ochoa said.

The dataculled from the new survey will allow NASA to better monitor the health needsof its astronaut corps, she added.

?We kind ofthink of the human as one of the critical systems on board the spacecraft, andjust like we try to assess the performance and reliability of any system, weneed to do that with the humans on board, too,? Ochoa said. ?They are criticalin carrying out the mission of whatever it is that we are trying to do.?

Meanwhile,members of Congress said NASA must still remain vigilant to address theconcerns raised by Bachmann?s independent panel, and any new items stemmingfrom the recent survey.

?While theanonymous survey released today provides some useful data, NASA?s action planfor addressing the problems identified last year is still unavailable,? said CongressmanMark Udall (D-Colo.), chairman of the space and aeronautics subcommittee, in astatement. ?NASA needs to provide that plan expeditiously if Congress is to beconfident that NASA is serious about dealing with concerns raised by Col.Bachmann and others, and I intend to press NASA to do so.?


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