Friday, July 27, 2007

NASA: Astronauts flew missions while drunk

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- NASA said Friday its astronauts flew drunk on at least two occasions despite warnings from doctors and colleagues that they posed a flight safety risk.

A panel reportedly found that flight surgeons allowed intoxicated astronauts to fly on the shuttle.

A panel found that flight surgeons allowed intoxicated astronauts to fly on the shuttle.

The revelation shocked former astronauts and came as NASA deals with the apparent sabotage of a computer bound for the orbiting international space station.

Earlier an Aviation Week story based on the report said the agency found "heavy use of alcohol" by astronauts within 12 hours of launch -- a violation of NASA's standard 12-hour "bottle-to-throttle" rule.

Such allegations, if true, would be "mind-boggling," according to two former shuttle astronauts contacted by CNN.

One of the astronauts said he was not aware of anyone "unduly using alcohol prior to launch." The other said "not a chance," and added that he would have "thrown the person off the crew." Video Watch how astronauts say the revelations are "mind-boggling" »

The astronauts asked that they not be named due to the sensitive nature of the allegations and the lack of detail available before the report is released.

Former NASA flight surgeon Jonathan Clark told CNN he'd never heard such reports in the past, although he said he had seen crew allowed to fly while "extremely tired" from "pre-mission fatigue." "Many of them took sleeping pills to try get some normal sleep state, and there were times when crew were groggy."

He said there are traditional pre-flight celebrations and toasting with crew members and their families, "but the times I've been involved ... there was beer and wine but there wasn't any heavy drinking."

Clark said he attended many such events as a flight surgeon or as an astronaut spouse. Clark's wife Laurel Clark was killed along with six other astronauts in the 2003 Columbia disaster.

It was unclear in the Aviation Week story who might have been drinking or when during the 27-year history of the space shuttle program the alleged incidents might have happened. The report comes from a panel NASA commissioned after the February arrest of former astronaut Lisa Nowak. Panelists looked into NASA's medical and psychological screening process.

A NASA official told The Associated Press the allegations of pre-launch drinking are based on anonymous interviews and are unsubstantiated. AP said the official did not want to be named in advance of a NASA news conference set for 1 p.m. ET.

NASA Deputy Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said Thursday he had never dealt with safety issues involving inebriated astronauts.

"There's not been a disciplinary action that I've been involved in with regard to this activity," he said.

NASA's next scheduled space shuttle mission is August 7, for the crew of the orbiter Endeavour. Gerstenmaier also said an internal investigation has been launched into the sabotage of the computer and said it would be repaired and ready for next month's liftoff.

The problem surfaced, Gerstenmaier said, when a subcontractor who supplied the computer notified NASA. Workers checked the computer and found it was intentionally damaged.

The computer is to be installed aboard the station's U.S. laboratory to monitor sensors on the facility's truss, Gerstenmaier said. It was not designed to be part of any command and control or navigation functions, he said.

Gerstenmaier would not name the subcontractor that supplied the computer. He did say it is not based at Kennedy Space Center. He said NASA management does not believe the incident is related to the ongoing strike at Kennedy Space Center between prime shuttle contractor U.S. Space Alliance and the machinists union.

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