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27 Jul, 2007 22:16

NASA astronauts accused of alcohol abuse

A panel set up to investigate NASA is reporting that astronauts from the American Aeronautical Agency were cleared to fly while drunk on at least two occasions. The damning report states that the astronauts were approved for their missions despite colleag

The Astronaut Health Care Review Committee convened on NASA's request after the arrest of Lisa Novak in February who was accused of attacking a fellow astronaut.

It has now interviewed 14 astronauts, eight flight surgeons and five family members. The flight surgeons told the panel that superiors in NASA were notified of 'major crew medical problems' but their observations were ignored.
NASA promised actions after the release of the report.
“We will act immediately on the more troubling aspects of this report with respect to alcohol use and the anecdotal references of resistance by agency leadership to accepting advice or criticisms about the fitness and readiness of individuals for space flight,” said Shana Dale, NASA Deputy Administrator.
The chair of the panel Richard Bachmann said his main concern was not so much the details of alleged drinking but the demoralising reaction from administrators.
“Two specific incidences of alcohol abuse that were put in the report were specifically chosen to illustrate a larger problem – which is the role of the flight surgeon in protecting both the individual's health flight safety and the mission completion,” commented Richard Bachmann.

Some say the current state of affairs is deep-rooted in the ethical culture at NASA.

“Inside NASA, people believe that they are the best and the brightest and that gives rise to a culture that doesn't anticipate these sorts of situations. If you're running a railroad or an airline, and a pilot or an engineer shows up drunk, there's a procedure, you take him off the flight, right away,” says Howard McCurdy from American University’s School of Public Affairs,

In reaction to the investigation Russian experts are sceptical about the findings on intoxicated astronauts being cleared to fly.

Also in an exclusive interview with Russia Today, NASA expert James Oberg said the mass media are misinterpreting the story.

“I know people are still very interested in the particular drinking cases. In my view, they keep missing the point of the scandal, of the problem itself. In terms of the people involved, if they have broken regulations, this goes beyond individual medical privacy. It goes to the point of flight safety – and that sort of thing is not private. The fact that the flight surgeon was powerless to enforce regulations is more important. In the Soviet programme we saw cases when individuals were removed from flight crews weeks, days, even only a few days before launch for medical reasons. So the doctors have had a lot more authority in the Soviet programme than apparently they have in NASA. This is an interesting question, and I’m going to pay a lot of attention to it,” said James Oberg.

Meanwhile, the safety concerns raised by the panel coincided with a sabotage case. A computer due to travel on board the Endeavour shuttle has been damaged by one of its subcontracted employees.

With less than two weeks to go before the launch of the craft, NASA is planning to have everything fixed for a timely departure.