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Space Program Components Sabotaged; Astronauts Said To Fly Drunk

By | July 30, 2007

      Sabotage was found in two computer gear components made for the International Space Station, and separately, a study committee heard allegations that astronauts were intoxicated before scheduled flights but whistleblowers were ignored, according to NASA officials speaking in two lengthy briefings.

      Congressional hearings will be held in September on the drunk astronauts issue.

      William H. Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations, disclosed the sabotage — wires that were deliberately cut in a manner that couldn’t have been accidental — but said the sabotage to two similar units that was reported by a NASA subcontractor outside Florida wasn’t related to an ongoing contractor labor union strike in Florida.

      The “fairly recent” sabotage is being probed by investigators in the office of the NASA inspector general, Gerstenmaier said. The damage was discovered about a week and a half ago, he said Thursday.

      This was “intentional damage” that was obvious and wouldn’t have been overlooked, rather than being a surreptitious attempt to damage a computer that later would fail in space.

      “Wires were cut” on an electronics unit that wasn’t vital to operations in space, he said. “Some wires were damaged internal to the box,” he disclosed.

      If the unit been installed on the International Space Station (ISS), it merely would have meant that data gathered from sensors on a structural truss wouldn’t have been sent on for processing. “We would just not have been able to dump the data,” he said. The damage wouldn’t have jeopardized either astronauts or the space station.

      A key fact, Gerstenmaier emphasized, is that while the gear was in damaged condition, “it never got on the shuttle” for the ride up to the ISS. Instead, the sabotaged gear will be repaired and then will fly on the Space Shuttle Endeavour flight that lifts off from Kennedy Space Center a week from tomorrow. (Please see separate story.)

      As to why anyone would wish to sabotage any component in the space program, “I don’t want to speculate on motivation,” Gerstenmaier said.

      Drunk Astronauts?

      The investigatory committee heard allegations of two incidents involving astronauts drinking before scheduled missions on the American space shuttle, the Russian Soyuz vehicle, and aircraft.

      That drew swift reaction from two key House lawmakers, who said they are appalled by the idea of astronauts flying while under the influence, adding that hearings will be held on the matter in early September.

      Both Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, and Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), chairman of its space and aeronautics subcommittee, said they fear there are serious flaws in NASA oversight of its astronauts.

      Allegations that inebriated astronauts have presented themselves for air or space flights may be unprecedented.

      Gerstenmaier said he could recall no disciplinary action for flying-while-under-the-influence being meted out to any astronaut, at least no disciplinary move that involved Gerstenmaier.

      A separate NASA briefing was provided by Deputy NASA Administrator Shana Dale, Air Force flight surgeon Col. Richard Bachman Jr., who headed one committee that NASA formed to examine astronaut physical and mental health issues, and by others.

      Some of their key points about the allegations of flying while intoxicated:

      • These are just allegations at this juncture. NASA is just beginning to investigate the allegations to determine whether they are true.

      • If they’re true, there is no telling now just what disciplinary action might be taken against astronauts imbibing and flying.

      • Ellen Ochoa, director of flight crew operations, said she often has been in astronaut crew quarters just before flights, and observed no drinking or drunkenness in the 12- hour no drinks period. “Never. Absolutely never,” she said, except for a traditional Russian toasting ceremony prior to Kazakhstan launches.

      • One of the two incidents described to the committee involved an astronaut with alcohol in his system who presented himself for a flight on the space shuttle, except the shuttle flight was canceled because of an engineering/mechanical problem. With the shuttle flight scratched, the astronaut then, on the same day, went to fly a T-38 jet trainer plane back home, again without first waiting for the 12-hour no-alcohol period to pass. “This individual presented for flight for the shuttle and then for T-38,” Bachman said. The other incident involved an astronaut who flew on a Soyuz space vehicle to the International Space Station.

      • The years when these alleged infractions occurred, the names of astronauts involved, the degree of inebriation, how much time elapsed in each incident between the last drink consumed and the start of a planned flight, and other pivotal details haven’t been disclosed, in some cases because those the committee interviewed didn’t provide them.

      • It is unknown whether these two incidents are the only ones where astronauts flew with alcohol in their systems, or whether there may be many more such occurrences.

      • Committee findings are views of the committee, not necessarily shared by NASA or other agencies.

      • While the portrayals of astronauts drinking and flying are unproven allegations at this time, the accounts provided by multiple astronauts and others are “remarkably compelling and consistent,” Bachman said.

      • There is a deeply ingrained culture about matters such as drinking that may have to be changed at NASA, and the change may not be achieved easily.

      • The committee has “significant concerns regarding … alcohol use” among astronauts, and their “fitness for flight due to alcohol use,” Bachman said.

      • When NASA medical personnel, astronauts and others raised warnings about an astronaut being drunk, such warnings often were “disregarded,” instead of flights being postponed while errant astronauts regained sobriety. That caused whistleblowing medical personnel and others whose warnings were ignored to become demoralized.

      • NASA is issuing a written code of conduct to close a loophole. While existing codes bar drinking alcoholic beverages for 12 hours before flying, that clearly applies to flying aircraft. But currently it isn’t clear it covers flying in spacecraft as well. The new code clearly bars drinking and then flying in spacecraft. Further, “We don’t allow alcohol on spacecraft or aircraft,” Dale said.

      • The 12-hour limit will be reviewed and, if needed, a longer no-drinking period will be mandated. However, at this point, for the seven-day quarantine of the crew before a shuttle flight, having a beer in off-duty hours isn’t seen as a negative.

      • If an astronaut is perceived to be under the influence just before a flight, NASA officials have the power to “stop the mission if there is any impairment of any kind of a crew member.”

      • NASA will attempt to divine a way to deal with the alcohol problem.

      • At any hearings that Congress may wish to hold on the alcohol-and-astronauts issue, NASA is prepared to assist lawmakers.

      Those allegations of astronauts flying drunk were unearthed when NASA ordered a probe of physical and mental health of astronauts, following an incident involving then- astronaut Lisa Nowak earlier this year.

      Nowak, a Navy captain and mother whose marriage encountered difficulties, was alleged to have armed herself with a knife, chemical mace, a metal mallet and trash bags before confronting a female Air Force officer whom Nowak allegedly saw as a rival for the affections of a male astronaut, William Oefelein. While Nowak at first was charged with attempted murder, the charge was dropped, though she still faces lesser charges at a court in Florida.

      Nowak was little mentioned during the briefing.

      NASA now will proceed with a four-point program to resolve the alcohol-and-astronauts issue, Dale said.

      First, Bryan O’Connor, NASA chief of safety and mission assurance, a former astronaut, on Friday began a probe of the allegations of improper alcohol use. He will review all existing policies and procedures related to alcohol use and astronaut medical fitness prior to flight. The goal is to ensure that risks to flight safety are dealt with by appropriate authorities, and, if necessary, elevated through a transparent system of senior management review and accountability.

      Second, the NASA Medical Policy Board, comprised of senior internal and external medical experts, will further assess the medical and behavioral findings and recommendations in reviews by the two investigatory committees. The board will institute behavioral health assessments as a part of annual flight physicals for all astronauts.

      Third, NASA will develop an astronaut code of conduct and has engaged the astronaut corps to help develop the formal guidelines. Astronauts already have started to develop an initial set of recommendations and agency leadership will establish a collaborative process to create an official code.

      Fourth, to address organizational culture issues outlined in the reports, NASA will conduct a series of internal assessments, including anonymous surveys to be completed by astronauts and flight surgeons, to provide feedback and gather information. The goal is to improve communications and ensure leadership is responsive to concerns and complaints.

      “We are moving as quickly as we can on the recommendations, and [NASA] Administrator Mike Griffin and I will closely monitor progress on these issues,” Dale said. “After the review is completed, it is our intention to share the findings with the public, to the maximum extent possible.”

      The reports of astronaut alcohol use and other topics can be read in full by going to on the Web.

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