Is lifting off while drunk really so bad?

Reports of astronauts drinking while flying sound fishy -- but, hey, is that why they wear diapers?

By Farhad Manjoo

Published July 27, 2007 3:52PM (EDT)

NASA will hold a press conference Friday to announce the findings of a panel investigating astronauts' health; among the panel's discoveries is that astronauts have been allowed to fly on the Space Shuttle despite doctors' warnings that they were dangerously drunk, as Aviation Week first reported on Thursday.

In another matter, NASA has confirmed that an employee at a subcontracting company cut the wires inside a computer before it was installed in the Shuttle Endeavour; the cut wires would have posed no danger to the shuttle's mission, the agency says.

The drunk-astronauts story makes for some good headlines -- my hat goes off to Australia's the Age for "Lift-off for Wide, Booze Yonder" -- but the story is beginning to sound quite fishy. Anonymous former astronauts tell the New York Times and CNN that people may have a few drinks the night before launching, but that it would be extremely difficult to get star-eyed drunk. The Associated Press, meanwhile, has reported that the allegations of drinking are not substantiated in the coming report.

"I wonder how someone could get into trouble right before a launch because of the way they keep us bottled up right before a flight," one astronaut tells the Times. "We've got a lot of preflight requirements, including a sleep period and examinations before breakfast and suiting up before heading to the pad. There's a lot to do and a lot of people watching you."

What I'd like to know from an astronaut, though, is how dangerous it is to lift off while drunk. I imagine it's not advisable, but the astronauts are not -- at least not all of them -- actively involved in the launch. If you're mostly sitting strapped in like a passenger in coach, what's the harm in a little buzz?

Indeed, when he returned from a six-month stint on the space station a couple of years ago, Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov called on the American and Russian space agencies to lift the ban on alcohol consumption in space. A little wine or cognac a day, he said, would help astronauts "better cope with the psychological stress."

One hopes this comes up at today's press conference. Another pertinent question: Is this why they wear diapers?

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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