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NASA: No Evidence of Drunk Astronauts

NASA: No evidence of drunk astronauts
An internal NASA investigation found no evidence that astronauts tried to fly into space while inebriated but recommends that astronauts be barred from "drinking to excess" six months before launch.

The investigation was carried out by NASA safety chief Bryan O'Connor in response to an external committee's report that two astronauts showed up for their space flights while under the influence of alcohol. The external report, issued in July, said one astronaut was a member of a space-shuttle crew, while the other was scheduled to fly on a Russian spaceship to the International Space Station.

The external panel conceded that it had neither investigated nor confirmed the incidents.

NASA REPORTS: Findings of Astronaut Health Reviews

PANEL'S FINDINGS: Report uncovers allegations of astronauts drunk on flights

NASA's own investigation, which was released on Tuesday, turned up no evidence that the alleged episodes took place.

"I cannot prove, Bryan cannot prove, that there isn't somebody out there … who just doesn't want to come forward," said NASA chief Michael Griffin, but NASA set out to find "any shred of truth (to the allegations) … and we cannot find it."

To investigate the external panel's allegations, O'Connor reviewed NASA records and conducted more than 90 interviews with everyone from kitchen workers to flight surgeons to astronauts. His work encompassed all astronauts' flights on the shuttle and Soyuz in the last 20 years, the time period after the Challenger accident in 1986.

O'Connor wrote in his findings that he learned more about the allegedly drunk Soyuz astronaut not from a NASA staffer but from Richard Bachmann, the chair of the external panel. Bachmann told O'Connor that the astronaut was so drunk that a worried flight surgeon decided to spend the night sitting in the man's bedroom. Griffin said further investigation showed the anecdote is false. He said that the incident did not involve alcohol and that privacy rules prevented him from telling the full story.

In the case of the shuttle crewmember, Bachmann's panel reported that the astronaut was under the influence of alcohol when the shuttle launch was scrubbed, then showed up still drunk for a flight on a NASA jet back to Houston, where the astronaut corps is based.

O'Connor found only six shuttle missions in the last 20 years that fit that description. He spoke to at least two crewmembers from each of the six and to the then-chief astronauts, who are in constant contact with shuttle crews prior to launch.

"None could verify the scenario," he wrote.

The external panel found that some flight surgeons' concerns had been disregarded so often that they were reluctant to speak up. In response, the NASA flight surgeons drafted an unsolicited statement asserting that "our safety and medical concerns have not been ignored" and "We have not observed any Astronaut impaired by alcohol" during flight operations. Every NASA flight surgeon signed the statement.

O'Connor did find that astronauts drink alcohol during their stay in Florida just before shuttle launches. But drinking — mostly of beer and wine — is light to moderate, he found, and is much less than in the past.

O'Connor's report recommended that "drinking to excess" should be prohibited to members of shuttle crews 12 months before launch, just as skiing and airplane racing already are.

He said astronauts should use their judgment on how much to imbibe.

By: Traci Watson, USA TODAY

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