NASA panel report: Drunken astronauts unknown

Investigators say that astronauts were intoxicated prior to space flights, but the charges haven't been verified.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published July 27, 2007 5:04PM (EDT)

The panel investigating health issues at NASA (it was convened after the Lisa Nowak imbroglio) has just released its much-anticpated report -- and, as rumored, the investigation did turn up instances in which astronauts flew while drunk. The panel says:

Interviews with both flight surgeons and astronauts identified some episodes of heavy use of alcohol by astronauts in the immediate preflight period, which has led to flight safety concerns. Alcohol is freely used in crew quarters. Two specific instances were described where astronauts had been so intoxicated prior to flight that flight surgeons and/or fellow astronauts raised concerns to local on-scene leadership regarding flight safety. However, the individuals were still permitted to fly. The medical certification of astronauts for flight duty is not structured to detect such episodes, nor is any medical surveillance program by itself likely to detect them or change the pattern of alcohol use.

The panel recommends that NASA discipline and educate astronauts on the health risks of lifting off while intoxicated, and impose an alcohol-free period prior to a flight.

In response to the panel's findings, NASA released a statement saying that it will look into the report -- but it stresses that the panel did not verify the alcohol charges. In an FAQ section on its Web site, the agency says:

The committee received allegations regarding alcohol use that it did not attempt to confirm or verify. The committee included the comments in its report to NASA, but the committee has not provided NASA the names of individuals or flights involved in the alleged incidents.

NASA is unaware of any astronauts who were intoxicated prior to flight. However, the administrator and deputy administrator have directed an internal review, which will be conducted by the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. Until we have more information, NASA cannot determine the veracity of these claims.

Not only does NASA not know the drunken astronauts -- it also doesn't know what flights they were drunk for. The incident could have concerned a test flight. Or, indeed, it may be completely untrue.

Read the panel's full report here.

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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