NASA’s big hangover

My guess is the headache medication hasn’t been dispensed this heavily in NASA’s HR and PR departments since Lisa Nowak’s adventures in February. These two stories — worker sabotages computer destined for International Space Station and employee embezzles $150,000 — are bad enough. This one, though, is horrendous. A panel reviewing astronaut health issues as a result of the Nowak incident reported:

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 flight safety concerns. Alcohol is freely used in crew quarters. 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. However, the individuals were still permitted to fly.

With respect to the two incidents of intoxication prior to flight, NASA’s FAQ on the report says the committee received allegations to this effect that the panel “did not attempt to confirm or verify.” It also did not identify the individuals or flights involved in the incidents. The panel documents are available here.

Now I understand some people (such as those whose last words tend to be, “Hey, watch this!”) might think you can find bravery in a bottle. And I know that during “the Right Stuff” era, the Mercury 7 and their successors were reputedly more than willing to party. But to go into space intoxicated? Aside from reminding me of a bad TV sketch I once saw where an airsick astronaut turned the shuttle into a literal “vomit comet,” it not only makes you ponder the dangers this created but the amount of confidence astronauts actually had in the program.

Of course, as you start to think privatization of the space industry might be the ticket, three people were killed and three critically injured in an explosion at the facility for Burt Rutan’s private manned space program. Still, this incident apparently occurred while testing a propellant system, reinforcing the risks of space flight and the apparent idiocy of the alcohol practices uncovered by the NASA panel.

Sadly, the alcohol report reinforces one interpretation of Peter Schilling’s version of why there is no response to David Bowie’s question, “Can you hear me Major Tom?”

Trying to relax
Up in the capsule
“Send me up a drink”
Jokes Major Tom

“Major Tom (I’m Coming Home),” Peter Schilling

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