NASA vows review of alleged astronaut alcohol abuse
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: July 27, 2007
NASA managers today vowed to carry out a detailed follow-up study to flesh out an agency-ordered review of astronaut health care issues that included anonymous allegations of alcohol abuse in the astronaut corps. The initial review was ordered in the wake of the Lisa Nowak affair earlier this year but it appeared to raise more questions than it answered. The review, released today, provided few details and relied mainly on anecdotal reports of alcohol abuse and the perceived reluctance of senior astronauts and NASA managers to heed concerns raised by flight surgeons and even other astronauts.
"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," the report said. "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."
That allegation touched off a firestorm of internal and external speculation because the report did not specify whether either of the two incidents in question involved the space shuttle, flights in T-38 jet trainers or U.S. astronauts launching aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. Today, Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann Jr., chairman of the NASA Astronaut Healthcare System Review Committee, attempted to clarify the issue.
"There were two incidents described to us in more detail as representative of a larger concern," he said. "One of those incidents involved both the shuttle and a T-38 during the course of the same incident. The second incident involved the Soyuz."
In the case of the shuttle, he said, a T-38 incident allegedly occurred after a shuttle launch was called off because of technical problems. But it was not clear whether the astronaut in question was believed to be intoxicated aboard the shuttle or later, after the crew left the area. Many agency insiders privately scoffed at the idea of a drunken astronaut getting aboard a shuttle given the numerous suit technicians, fellow astronauts and managers they come in contact with on launch day.
But Bachmann defended the report and said the details were not the focus.
"The two specific incidents of alcohol use that we put into the report were specifically chosen to illustrate a larger problem, to call attention to the larger issue, which is the role of the flight surgeon in protecting both the individual's health, flight safety and mission completion," he said. "And the fact that the flight surgeons and other astronauts who described their role in these incidents and in others which we did not obtain further details on, used these to say they felt concerned that their professional input seemed to be disregarded, at least at the local level, and they were demoralized by that disregard to the point that they felt like they would be less likely to report concerns ... in the future.
"The committee was not concerned in the details of these specific instances to the degree where we felt compelled to get names and dates and times. It was not a legal investigation, we did not take sworn testimony or depositions or make transcripts. We were performing a review, an overview to identify areas of concern back to NASA for them ... to conduct a much more extensive and rigorous anonymous survey in order to find out whether these isolated incidents are, in fact, isolated or whether they are pervasive."
Asked about the lack of detail in a report raising serious questions about astronaut behavior, Bachmann said "there is certainly no intent to impugn the entire astronaut corps."
"Our desire when these incidents were told to us by volunteer NASA personnel who accepted the opportunity to come and talk to us, we were compelled to raise those to NASA's attention," he said. "We don't have enough data to call it alcohol abuse. We have no way of knowing if these are the only two incidents that have ever occurred in the history of the astronaut corps or if they are the tip of a very large iceberg.
"We have no way of making any judgments on that. And that's why we recommended to NASA that they do a lot more evaluation and the only way you're going to get that kind of information is number one, leadership has to ask for it and support it and number two, the people you're asking for it from need to feel safe, that they can participate in this process without endangering their careers."
Former shuttle commander Rick Searfoss, veteran of three space missions, said the report was not consistent with his own experience in the astronaut corps.
"I can speak probably more directly to that than anyone because of my religion," he told CBS Radio. "As a Latter Day Saint, I do not drink at all and I am not going to compromise that for anything, I wouldn't compromise that even to go to fly in space. And I never felt like I had to the least little bit. ... I never once felt any bit of pressure to compromise that and I can't see where any of my colleagues would feel that pressure. This is just very flummoxing to me to see this thing, it's entirely inconsistent with what I saw in my nine years in the corps."
Searfoss said he was "extremely disappointed there weren't more specifics in this report."
"It just smacked to me of rumor mongering and at this point, I just kind of look at the whole thing as kind of like the Duke lacrosse case," he said. "Let's have some facts and specific missions and some names and get down to it. These are very, very serious allegations that are in my experience completely inconsistent with both the culture and things I personally observed supporting a whole bunch of launches from 1990 to 1998, and of course, my own three launches. I mean, this report is so inconsistent with anything I ever saw. I never saw that with any of the flight surgeons I worked with, that they would compromise their professional ethics and integrity that way."
But Bachmann said his review panel found the anonymous interviews credible enough to pass on to NASA management.
"Many of the cultural and structural issues identified in the report have existed for many years, pre-dating the current leadership team, are deeply ingrained and will take senior leadership action to (correct) them," he said. "Members of the medical and astronaut communities raised significant concerns regarding barriers to communication. They described instances where medical personnel or a fellow astronaut raised concerns about an astronaut's fitness for flight due to alcohol use in the immediate pre-flight period. And these concerns appeared to them to be disregarded or over ridden.
"The committee was concerned about this perception of disregard for human factors input and recommends that NASA conduct further evaluation using tools such as anonymous surveys to determine the extent of such perceptions and insure that human factors concerns are appropriately identified and dealt with."
Deputy NASA Administrator Shana Dale said NASA would do just that:
Dale said NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has directed the agency's senior safety manager to carry out an internal safety review to determine the accuracy of the anecdotal references to alleged alcohol abuse and to recommend corrective actions if any such abuse can be documented.
"In the meantime, NASA's existing T-38 aircraft alcohol use policy that historically has been applied to space flight has been explicitly extended as an interim policy to flight on any spacecraft," she said. "This interim policy limits alcohol use for 12 hours prior to flight and further states that astronauts will neither be under the influence nor the effects of alcohol at the time of launch. A comprehensive review of alcohol use policy prior to aircraft use or space flight is already underway."