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NASA deputy administrator Shana Dale at today's press conference

NASA Tackles Drunk Astronauts

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is setting up a review committee to look into reports of drunken astronauts and other cultural problems at the agency, officials announced at a press conference today.

The trouble started in February when astronaut Lisa Nowak drove from Texas to Florida and attacked a love rival with pepper spray. That incident prompted the appointment of a group headed by Richard Bachmann, commander of the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks City Base, Texas, to come up with some recommendations to prevent similar problems. The 4-month inquiry gathered information from interviews with astronauts and flight surgeons. Among its findings were "heavy use of alcohol" by some astronauts just before flights, astronaut medical and behavioral health care that is "highly fragmented," and policies that do not require astronauts to report health problems and do not evaluate astronauts--once selected--for psychological problems for the remainder of their careers.

The report, released today, also chastised the culture at NASA. For example, said Bachmann, some astronauts and flight surgeons feel there is official "disregard for human factors input"--in other words, the top brass is less than open to expressions of concern regarding health and safety issues.

At today's press conference, NASA deputy administrator Shana Dale emphasized that "[NASA chief] Mike Griffin and I are absolutely committed to an open culture here at NASA." She said an extensive behavioral health assessment will be added to annual physicals for astronauts, who will also have access to counseling before, during, and after flights. Officials will also run an anonymous survey to get other suggestions, including ideas for improving the way the astronauts' office is run. A memo has already been sent out affirming that the military's policy on drinking and flying--no alcohol for 12 hours prior to flight--also applies to astronauts.

Bachmann revealed that there were two instances--at times unspecified--of heavy drinking before planned flights: one involved an astronaut who arrived for a shuttle flight (subsequently postponed for mechanical reasons) in what another astronaut regarded as a state unfit to fly. The other instance evidently happened in Kazakhstan since it involved a NASA astronaut before takeoff in Russian space capsule Soyuz. Bachmann insisted that the incidents did not necessarily mean a big alcohol problem at NASA, but that they merely illustrated the need for officials to pay more heed to health and safety concerns.

Former NASA psychiatrist Patricia Santy calls the report "excellent." She says it echoes her own observations that "flight surgeons' recommendations … are usually deflected" if they could have adverse consequences for NASA's public image. Both the recommendations and the criticism of NASA's culture--which Santy characterizes as one of "denial"--cover "stuff we have been saying for a few decades now." She adds, "It's just really tragic that it had to take these … adverse public relations events" to get the agency to move.

A separate, internal report also released today addressed the Lisa Nowak question. Michael Coats, director of Johnson Space Center, where Nowak was based, reported that interviews with flight surgeons and fellow workers failed to uncover any signs that she was headed for a breakdown. She was described as "private, shy … and distant"; sometimes "difficult to work with," but overall "extremely capable … and hardworking."

NASA's had a rough week: the agency is investigating why a contractor's employee sabotaged a computer slated to go to the space station next month by cutting some wires. And a report from the Government Accountability Office has blamed the agency for "lack of accountability and weak internal controls" which have permitted the loss of $94 million worth of equipment over the past decade.

The House space and aeronautics subcommittee has promised to hold hearing on astronaut health in September.

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