NASA Investigation Finds No Drunken Astronauts

The tale of two drunken astronauts may have been just that -- a tale.

February 11, 2009, 8:58 PM

Jan. 23, 2008 — -- After completing an internal investigation, NASA denied that a report released last year stating that astronauts were drunk while flying had any merit, the agency said in a report today.

After this summer's original report, which was conducted originally at the agency's request, NASA interviewed 91 percent of its astronauts and flight surgeons and found no evidence of any astronauts drinking while in flight.

"In response to a direct question regarding personal observations, all respondents reported never witnessing a crew member consume alcohol, on launch day, in the time leading up to launch," the report, released online, stated.

"So far we haven't uncovered an issue," Ellen Ochoa, deputy director, Johnson Space Center, said in a news conference about the report today.

"We're always interested in any factor that could affect crew performance and we would follow up on anything that we thought would affect performance. … Astronauts are very professional and when they're preparing for launch, they prepare for it as the most serious endeavor of our lives," Ochoa said.

The external 2007 report was prepared at NASA's request by an outside panel of doctors, engineers and present and former astronauts after the arrest of former astronaut Lisa Nowak.

Nowak was arrested Feb. 5, 2007, in Orlando, Fla., and charged with the attempted kidnapping of U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, the girlfriend of astronaut William Oefelein, in an apparent love triangle confrontation. Her case is currently pending in a Florida court.

The panel, chaired by Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann, talked to astronauts and others who worked with them, granting them anonymity when appropriate.

The July 2007 report stated that there were two incidents involving inebriated astronauts during shuttle flight. The report, however, did not name the astronauts, the dates or specify what kinds of flights were involved.

The report's mention of alcohol use by astronauts on launch day leaked the day before the panel released its findings and made front-page news.

NASA's report released today, however, mentioned one incidence of "perceived impairment of a crew member" that occurred during the final day of launch, but not on a launch day or within 12 hours of a launch.

"The incident involved prescription medicine and alcohol," Ochoa told reporters.

Despite the mixture, the crew member was allowed to fly, according to Dr. Richard Williams, NASA's chief health and medical officer.

"In the incident that was referred to in the survey, the individual was judged clear and medically fit to fly," Williams said.

Ochoa and Williams would not release any further details, citing medical privacy.

The survey results support an initial investigation that NASA safety chief Bryan O'Connor conducted in August 2007. At the time, NASA said O'Connor had investigated the last 10 years of space shuttle flights and found no evidence of astronauts who were inebriated before launch.

Despite his findings, O'Connor recommended a more detailed follow-up, one that could offer anonymity.

Astronauts are now in the process of developing a code of professional conduct and it could be completed as early as Friday, according to Ochoa.

After the report's release, members of the Congressional Committee on Science and Technology wanted even more investigation by NASA.

"The findings of NASA's anonymous survey echo a number of the concerns originally raised last summer by Col. Bachmann's external astronaut health care assessment panel. NASA now needs to demonstrate its sustained and serious commitment to addressing those concerns, and the committee will work to see that they do so," committee chairman Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Ned Potter and Gina Sunseri.

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