September 3, 2014

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Astronauts fly drunk, NASA panel finds

Martin Merzer
McClatchy Newspapers
 
   MIAMI — NASA allowed at least two astronauts to fly even though they were so drunk that flight surgeons considered them a safety risk, according to a report published Thursday by a trade journal.
   Aviation Week and Space Technology reported that an independent health panel commissioned by NASA also found a pattern of “heavy use of alcohol” by astronauts before launch.
   Details were scarce and NASA officials advised caution in drawing conclusions until they reveal details of the panel’s study today.
   In another astonishing development, NASA disclosed Thursday that someone sabotaged a computer scheduled for delivery in two weeks by shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station, cutting wires and inflicting other damage to the component.
   Bill Gerstenmaier, an associate administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the sabotage did not endanger the shuttle or its crew, the unit was being repaired and a subcontractor’s employee was responsible for the damage.
   “It’s something that we take very seriously,” he said, refusing to speculate about the employee’s motivation. “There’s an active investigation going on.”
   The component collects data from solar-energy sensors aboard the space station, an important function. Even more worrisome, the same unidentified subcontractor also produces crucial sensors that monitor the leading edge of the shuttle’s wings.
   But Gerstenmaier said Endeavour’s wing sensors were unaffected and its seven astronauts — including teacher Barbara Morgan — are scheduled for liftoff Aug. 7, though the crew members are likely to endure questions and jokes about their sobriety.
   The Aviation Week report did not include any details about which astronauts were drunk, which flights were involved or how recently the problems might have occurred.
      Since U.S. human space flights began in 1961, 292 American astronauts have been launched.
   In recent years, some of those astronauts have reached space aboard Russian rockets launched from Kazakhstan.
    In any event, Gerstenmaier said no mission had been jeopardized by an intoxicated astronaut.
   “I’ve never had an incident of that,” he said. “There’s not been a disciplinary action or anything like that I’ve been involved with regarding this type of activity.”
   In Washington, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he demanded prompt answers from senior NASA officials, and Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, said he was appalled by the report.
   “I have not yet seen the reviews, but if the reports of drunken astronauts being allowed to fly prove to be true, I think the agency will have a lot of explaining to do,” Gordon said. “That’s not the `right stuff’ as far as I’m concerned.”
      The study was one of two requested by the space agency in response to the February arrest in Orlando of astronaut Lisa Nowak, implicated in a bizarre love triangle that involved another astronaut.
   Nowak has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping, battery and burglary with assault. NASA dismissed her in March.
     According to Aviation Week, the panel found that “on at least two occasions, astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so intoxicated that they posed a flight-safety risk.”
   “The panel also reported `heavy use of alcohol’ by astronauts before launch, within the standard 12-hour `bottle to throttle’ rule applied to NASA flight crew members,” according to the account by reporter Frank Morring Jr.
   The study apparently doesn’t deal directly with the Nowak incident or mention any other astronaut by name, Aviation Week reported.