Washington DC (AFP) Jul 30, 2007
The US space agency faced a full-blown crisis Saturday as US lawmakers promised to probe how NASA allowed astronauts to fly missions while drunk as well as the sabotage of in-flight computers. The US House of Representatives Science and Technology committee called an oversight hearing for September, after a NASA report found astronauts had shown up to work drunk. House Space and Aeronautics subcommittee chairman Mark Udall warned that the report was a "wake-up" call.
"We need to understand what happened and why, whether anyone is going to be held accountable, and what the agency is going to do to fix these apparently deep-seated problems," he said.
The report released by NASA found "heavy use of alcohol" inside the standard 12-hour "bottle to throttle" abstinence period for flight crew.
NASA has recently regained its confidence after the 2003 breakup of Columbia with seven aboard, and years of testing to prove the reliability of its shuttle program, as well as its management procedures.
However, in February, NASA's reputation was sullied again when astronaut Lisa Nowak allegedly tried to kidnap a woman dating another astronaut.
In the wake of Nowak's arrest, NASA set up an internal panel to review astronaut health, and was handed reports of astronaut drinking.
"That's not the 'right stuff' as far as I'm concerned," said Bart Gordon, chairman of the House of Representatives science and technology committee, alluding to the book and 1983 film about early NASA crews, "The Right Stuff."
Air Force physician Richard Bachmann, who authored the report, told reporters one drinking incident came ahead of a shuttle mission that was eventually delayed.
The astronauts then wanted to fly on a T-38 supersonic jet used by NASA, he said, without giving more detail.
The second case involved a Russian Soyuz mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS), colonel Bachmann said.
Bachmann said there is "no way to know if they were isolated incidents or the top of large iceberg."
NASA said: "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."
"However the individuals were still permitted to fly," it said in a statement.
The panel interviewed 14 astronauts, eight flight surgeons, five family members and other staff for the 12-page report, which noted that astronauts lack regular mental-health assessments and feel pressure to hide their problems. There was more bad news for the space agency on Thursday when NASA officials said workers found a computer due to be transported by shuttle Endeavour in an August mission to the ISS had been apparently sabotaged, its wires cut.
"One of our subcontractors noticed that a network box for the shuttle had appeared to be tampered with," NASA spokeswoman Katherine Trinidad told AFP. "It is intentional damage to hardware."
She said workers who discovered the computer damage at the subcontractor's facility -- not at NASA's -- had notified the space agency "several days ago," adding: "There is an ongoing investigation."
She did not identify the subcontractors or offer more details.
"What we are trying to do now is repair that unit and try and fly it when possible," she said.
Endeavour and a crew of seven are due to launch on August 7 from NASA's base at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a mission to continue building the ISS, an orbiting space laboratory.
Safety is a major concern in shuttle missions after damage sustained by the Columbia craft on launch caused it to break up on re-entry in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.
The agency suffered another setback in April, when contractor Bill Phillips sneaked a revolver past security at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, shot a male colleague dead and killed himself.
earlier related report
With the review formally released by NASA this afternoon, Chairman Gordon and Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO) offered the following comments:
Chairman Gordon: "There's a lot of attention being given to the reports of alcohol abuse by astronauts prior to flight, and I take this very seriously. Drinking and driving is never a good idea - least of all when the vehicle involved is a multi-billion dollar Space Shuttle or a high performance jet aircraft.
But it's not just alcohol abuse; you only have to read the report to know that something clearly seems to be broken in NASA's system of astronaut oversight. I hope the agency will take the review team seriously, and not just fall back on the tired bromide that the review team's findings are 'unproven allegations.' Reports of drunken astronauts are just a part of the story - the review team's report contains a number of other findings that are cause for concern."
Among many alarming findings in the report, the review board found that "astronaut medical and behavioral health care is highly fragmented"" Also, "many anecdotes were related that involved risky behaviors by astronauts that were well known to the other astronauts and no apparent action was taken. Peers and staff fear ostracism if they identify their own or others' problems."
Chairman Udall: "The review team's report should be a real 'wake up' call that NASA has problems in its oversight of astronaut health and behavior that need to be addressed. We need to understand what happened and why, whether anyone is going to be held accountable, and what the agency is going to do to fix these apparently deep-seated problems. That's why we will hold a hearing on this matter as soon as the House reconvenes in September."
The Committee is currently planning an initial hearing on this matter for the first week of September.
The House Committee on Science and Technology, specifically, the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, handles issues related to civilian aviation R and D and U.S. civil and commercial space activities. This includes NASA, commercial space activities within the Department of Transportation and the Department of Commerce and the aviation R and D activities of the FAA.
nasa press release
The first assessment of astronaut behavioral medicine procedures, an internal review, was completed by NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, earlier this week. The second assessment, a broader review by outside experts called the Astronaut Health Care System Review Committee, was organized by NASA Chief Health and Medical Officer Dr. Richard Williams.
"The review committee, chaired by Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann, commander of the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, completed a valuable task on short notice and I would like to acknowledge the group's dedication and time commitment to this important review," Dale said. "We are committed to improving the behavioral care and assessment procedures for astronauts."
"We believe the resulting modifications will be good for the astronaut corps and for NASA."
Dale said NASA immediately will address four primary areas of concern:
NASA Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance Bryan O'Connor, a former astronaut, began an extensive examination Friday focusing on allegations of improper alcohol use. O'Connor 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.
NASA's Medical Policy Board, made up of senior internal and external medical experts, will further assess the medical and behavioral findings and recommendations in the two reviews. The board will institute behavioral health assessments as a part of annual flight physicals for all astronauts.
The agency will develop an astronaut code of conduct and has engaged NASA's astronaut corps to help develop the formal guidelines. The astronauts already have started to develop an initial set of recommendations and agency leadership will establish a collaborative process to create an official code.
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 Administrator Mike Griffin and I will closely monitor progress on these issues," Dale added. "After the review is completed, it is our intention to share the findings with the public, to the maximum extent possible."
Source: Agence France-Presse
Johnson Space Center Internal Review Findings
House Science and Technology Committee
Space Tourism, Space Transport and Space Exploration News
NASA Jolted By Boozing Astronauts And Sabotage
Washington (AFP) Jul 27, 2007
The US space agency faced tough questions Friday, after confirming a report that astronauts had shown up for duty drunk and after workers found a sabotaged computer destined for an imminent mission. Already under pressure over a range of issues, NASA could face a full-blown crisis as US lawmakers focus on the reports of drunken astronauts, who in one case were preparing to fly a shuttle mission, a US Air Force physician said. The revelation was made during a news conference on a US space agency report on astronaut health that found that astronauts were allowed to fly while drunk on at least two occasions.
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