Saturday, July 28, 2007

Astronauts drunk before flight

Astronauts drunk before flight
By Rebecca Knight in Boston
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: July 27 2007 20:02 | Last updated: July 27 2007 23:44

Nasa astronauts who turned up to work drunk were authorised to fly on two occasions, even after warnings from doctors that they posed a potential flight-safety risk, according to a report issued on Friday.

The independent report on astronaut health found “heavy use of alcohol” before launch, a practice in violation of the US space agency’s set 12-hour “bottle-to-throttle” rule.

The report panel, convened in February following the arrest of Lisa Nowak, an astronaut, on charges she tried to kidnap her rival in a love triangle, comprised military and civilian physicians, psychologists, lawyers, safety experts and astronauts.

Nasa said on Friday it was unaware of any astronauts drunk before a flight but that it was investigating the report’s findings. It said the panel did not provide the space agency with any details of the allegations.

The news coincided with a separate report of sabotage to the cargo of a coming mission at the US space agency.

At a press conference in the James Webb Auditorium at Nasa headquarters in Washington, Shana Dale, deputy administrator, said the agency would act immediately on the reports of alcohol use, conduct an internal safety review and then “recommend corrective actions”.

The agency has taken the report's suggestion for implementing an astronaut code of conduct “very seriously”, Ms Dale added.

Nasa has historically had a policy that prohibits any drinking in the 12 hours before an astronaut flies a training jet. But in light of the panel's report, the rule will officially be applied to space flights, as well.

The panel found that Nasa was not set up in such a way as 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 programme by itself likely to detect them or change the pattern of alcohol use,” its report said.

Officials inspecting the shuttle Endeavor, due to launch from Cape Canaveral space centre on August 7, meanwhile found electrical wires on a computerised monitoring device had been severed. Nasa said it believed the damage was caused by an agency subcontractor, but emphasised that it posed no danger to the shuttle or its astronauts. Bill Gerstenmaier, Nasa's associate administrator, said that the non-essential device, which measures physical stresses on the International Space Station's external arms, “will be repaired and it will fly on this flight”.


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