NASA: Astronauts sober for space

By Seth Borenstein

There is no evidence astronauts were drunk or had been drinking heavily before launching into space, an internal NASA investigation found Wednesday.

An independent astronaut health panel’s report of two unsubstantiated instances of heavy alcohol use before flights grabbed headlines in July. But when NASA’s safety chief tried to confirm the allegations, he came up empty.

“I was unable to verify any case in which an astronaut spaceflight crewmember was impaired on launch day,” or any case where a manager disregarded a recommendation that an astronaut not fly, said a 45-page report prepared by NASA safety chief Bryan O’Connor. He is a former astronaut and shuttle accident investigator.

O’Connor’s review went back 20 years and involved interviews with 90 astronauts, flight surgeons and other NASA officials.

However, O’Connor said flight surgeons should play a stronger “oversight” role in launch day activities.

Twenty flight surgeons signed an e-mail to O’Connor saying they have never seen any drunken astronauts before a launch or training jet flight.

O’Connor looked through 40,134 government and contractor reports of mishaps and problems dating back through 1984 — many of them anonymous — and none of them involved alcohol or drug abuse by astronauts.

Wednesday’s report confirms what top NASA officials had been saying in the last few weeks: There was no proof of drunken astronauts before launch.

In July, an independent panel said there were at least two unverified and unidentified instances of astronauts drinking heavily before a flight. The panel was formed to look at astronaut health issues because of the bizarre case of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who was arrested and charged with attempted kidnapping of a romantic rival.

The panel’s 12-page report last month said: “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 safety concerns.”

One instance involved a shuttle astronaut that a colleague claimed had had to much too drink; the colleague alerted others only after the launch was delayed because of mechanical instances.

O’Connor, using the clues in the July report, figured that that claim was probably one of three missions between 1990 and 1995. So he talked to at least two astronauts on each of those missions and the astronaut chiefs at the time and no one verified the claims.

The other involved an astronaut drinking alcohol before flying on a Russian Soyuz capsule to the international space station. Drinking, especially toasts, are common in the Russian space program.

O’Connor’s report said the claim was that a flight surgeon was worried the night before launch that the astronaut was so drunk that “he might suffer an airway obstruction.” O’Connor said he was limited by privacy issues, but he couldn’t confirm this either.

In both cases — in which no names were given — the report said that flight surgeons and/or fellow astronauts raised safety worries with nearby officials in charge, yet “the individuals were still permitted to fly.”

NASA administrator Michael Griffin this month pronounced pre-launch preparations for astronauts to be so visible that it is nearly impossible to sneak a drink.

“They would have to really want to drink and hide it really well,” Griffin said before the launch of the shuttle Endeavour. He called the charges “uncredible.”