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Report says NASA let astronauts fly drunk
Astronaut Drinking 6101016
This photo provided by NASA shows Deputy NASA Administrator Shana Dale, center, speaking as Ellen Ochoa, director of flight crew operations, NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, left, and Dr. Richard S. Williams, chief health and medical officer, NASA Headquarters, right, listen in at NASA headquarters in Washington, Friday, July 27, 2007, regarding a report that NASA let astronauts fly drunk on at least two occasions. - photo by AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls
    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After drinking heavily, an astronaut flew on a Russian spacecraft and another was cleared to fly on a space shuttle, according to interviews by a panel of outside experts, the panel’s chairman said Friday.
    In the case of the shuttle, the mission was delayed for mechanical reasons and the astronaut wanted to fly a jet from Florida back home to Houston, said Col. Richard Bachmann, head of the panel, created to assess astronaut health. He said he didn’t know the outcome.
    ‘‘In none of these can we say factually they did or did not occur,’’ he added, speaking by telephone to a news conference held in Washington. He said it was not the panel’s mission to investigate allegations and that NASA would have to ferret out details.
    The independent panel was created by NASA after the arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak in February on charges she tried to kidnap her rival in a love triangle.
    In a statement Friday, NASA said that it is unaware of any astronauts who were drunk before a flight but that it is investigating. It said the panel failed to give the space agency any details of the allegations.
    NASA has long had a policy that prohibits any drinking in the 12 hours before an astronaut flies a training jet. The space agency said that policy has historically been applied to spaceflights, too. But as a result of the panel’s report, the rule will officially be applied to spaceflights, NASA said.
    The panel said that astronauts and flight surgeons told the committee about heavy drinking by crew members just before flights. Also, the panel said alcohol is freely used in the crew quarters, where astronauts are quarantined at the Kennedy Space Center in the three days before launch.
    Only four paragraphs of the 12-page report dealt with alcohol use by astronauts.
    ‘‘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,’’ the panel. ‘‘However, the individuals were still permitted to fly.’’
    The eight-member panel included experts in aerospace medicine and medical legal matters, and clinical psychiatrists, all affiliated with government agencies.
    The panel said that NASA is not set up in such a way to deal with alcohol use by astronauts.
    ‘‘The medical certification of astronauts for flight duty is not structured to detect such episodes, nor is any medical surveillance program by itself likely to detect them or change the pattern of alcohol use,’’ the panel wrote.
    The panel recommended that NASA hold individuals and supervisors accountable for responsible use of alcohol, and that policies be instituted involving drinking before flight.
    In another finding, the panel reported that flight surgeons’ medical opinions were not valued by higher-ups. Several senior flight surgeons told the panel that officials only wanted to hear that all medical systems ‘‘were ‘go’ for on-time mission completion.’’
    The flight surgeons told the panel that higher-ups in NASA were notified of ‘‘major crew medical or behavioral problems,’’ but that the flight surgeons’ medical advice was ignored.
    ‘‘This disregard was described as ’demoralizing’ to the point where they said they are less likely to report concerns of performance decrement,’’ the panel wrote. ‘‘Crew members raised concerns regarding substandard astronaut task performance which were similarly disregarded.’’
    Fourteen astronauts, all but one with spaceflight experience, were interviewed by the panel, as well as five family members. All volunteered to take part in the review. In addition, eight flight surgeons were interviewed.

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