"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


Sabotage, Drinking Reports Shake NASA

July 27, 2007
Asso­ciated Press

Amer­i­ca’s space agen­cy was shak­en Thurs­day by two startling and un­re­lat­ed re­ports: One in­volved claims that as­tro­nauts were drunk be­fore fly­ing. The oth­er was news from NASA it­self that a work­er had sab­o­taged a com­put­er set for de­liv­ery to the in­tern­ati­onal space st­ati­on.

It was just anoth­er jolt for an oper­ati­on that has had a rocky year from the start, be­gin­ning with the ar­rest of an as­tro­naut ac­cused of at­tack­ing a ri­val in a love tri­an­gle.

A space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“It’s go­ing to shake up the world, I’ll tell you that,” re­tired NASA ex­ec­u­tive Sey­mour Him­mel said of the lat­est news. “There will be con­gres­si­on­al hear­ings that you will not be able to avoid.”

News of the two lat­est bomb­shells broke with­in just a few hours of each oth­er Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

Avi­ati­on Week & Space Tech­nol­o­gy re­ported on its Web site that a spe­cial pan­el stu­dy­ing as­tro­naut health found that on two oc­ca­si­ons, as­tro­nauts were al­lowed to fly af­ter flight sur­geons and oth­er as­tro­nauts warned they were so drunk they posed a safe­ty risk.

The in­de­pend­ent pan­el al­so found “heavy use of al­co­hol” be­fore launch—with­in the stand­ard 12-hour “bot­tle-to-throt­tle” rule, the mag­a­zine re­ported.

A NASA of­fi­cial con­firmed the re­port con­tains such de­tails, but said they were from anon­y­mous in­ter­views and not sub­stanti­ated. The of­fi­cial asked that his name not be used be­cause NASA will dis­cuss the health re­port on Fri­day.

The Avi­ati­on Week sto­ry did not say how long ago the al­leged in­ci­dents took place, nor did it say wheth­er it in­volved pi­lots or oth­er crew mem­bers.

At a news con­fer­ence to dis­cuss the up­com­ing space shut­tle launch set for Aug. 7, NASA’s space oper­ati­ons chief was asked re­peat­edly about the drunk­en as­tro­naut re­port. The man­ag­er, Bill Ger­sten­maier, would only say that he had nev­er seen an in­tox­i­cat­ed as­tro­naut be­fore flight or been in­volved in any dis­ci­pli­nary ac­ti­on re­lat­ed to that.

But Ger­sten­maier had more news. He re­vealed that an em­ploy­ee for a NASA sub­con­trac­tor had cut the wires in a com­put­er that was about to be load­ed in­to the shut­tle En­deav­our for launch.

The sub­con­trac­tor, which he would­n’t name, con­tacted NASA 1 1/2 weeks ago, as soon as it learn­ed that anoth­er com­put­er had been dam­aged de­lib­er­ate­ly, Ger­sten­maier said. Had the con­trac­tor not dis­cov­ered the prob­lem, NASA would have un­cov­ered it by test­ing the com­put­er be­fore launch, Ger­sten­maier said. Safe­ty was not an is­sue, he added.

He re­fused to spec­u­late on the work­er’s mo­tive. He al­so would­n’t say where the sab­o­tage oc­curred. He said it did not hap­pen in Flor­i­da and had noth­ing to do with an ongo­ing strike at the Ken­ne­dy Space Cen­ter by a ma­chin­ists’ un­ion.

NASA hopes to fix the com­put­er in time for launch next month. It’s in­tend­ed to be in­stalled in­side the space st­ati­on to col­lect da­ta from strain gauges on a ma­jor out­side beam.

Form­er shut­tle com­mand­er Ei­leen Col­lins was as stunned as an­yone to learn of the as­tro­naut al­co­hol claims in the up­com­ing health re­port. “I’m anx­ious to hear more de­tails be­cause this is very out of char­ac­ter from an­ything I have ev­er ex­pe­ri­enced,” she said. Col­lins wor­ries this will hurt the im­age of the as­tro­nauts, at least in the short term. “I hope peo­ple can really look at the good things as­tro­nauts do,” she said. 

As­tro­naut Jef­frey Wil­liams, who spent six months on the space st­ati­on last year, said he’s nev­er seen or heard of an­ything like this. As for the ef­fect this may have on as­tro­naut mo­rale, espe­cially so close to a shut­tle flight, he said, “We’re trained to deal with things so we deal with them with­out much emoti­on.”

Him­mel, who re­tired in 1981 as as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor for what is now Glenn Re­search Cen­ter in Cleve­land, was­n’t sur­prised to learn the in­form­ati­on was anon­y­mous. “Let’s face it. As­tro­nauts are a bunch of broth­ers and sis­ters, OK, and they’ll cov­er each oth­er’s back­sides be­cause they’re part of the team,” he said. “And who knows what the role of the par­tic­u­lar ones was to be. If he was just to sit in the mid­dle seat some­where and just be a pas­sen­ger, you kind of say, ‘Well, gee, I hope he does­n’t vom­it on the way up.’”

The in­de­pend­ent pan­el re­view­ing as­tro­naut health and NASA’s psy­cho­log­i­cal screen­ing pro­cess was cre­at­ed fol­low­ing the ar­rest in Feb­ru­ary of form­er space shut­tle fli­er Li­sa Nowak. None of the pan­el mem­bers re­turned phone calls or e-mails from The As­so­ci­at­ed Press.

Nowak is ac­cused of at­tack­ing the girl­friend of a fel­low as­tro­naut—her ro­man­tic ri­val—with pep­per spray in a park­ing lot at Or­lan­do In­tern­ati­onal Air­port. Fired by NASA in March, she has plead­ed not guilty to charges of at­tempted kid­nap­ping, bat­tery and bur­gla­ry with as­sault. The scan­dal was fol­lowed by a freak hail­storm that tore in­to a space shut­tle on the launch pad that set back the year’s flight sched­ule. Then there was a shoot­ing at John­son Space Cen­ter in Hous­ton by an em­ploy­ee who ul­ti­mately killed him­self.

Him­mel questi­ons wheth­er any screen­ing or rules could weed out as­tro­nauts like Nowak. “I have per­son­al friends who are psy­chi­a­trists and they say, ‘Look, we don’t know what the hell goes on and you can’t really eval­u­ate some­body overnight,’“ he said.

As for as­tro­nauts who might over­in­dulge be­fore flight, if they’re form­er fight­er or test pi­lots, “it’s a pret­ty hard-living bunch and it’s a very emoti­onally in­tense thing,” Him­mel said. He said an old NASA col­league who worked closely with test pi­lots once told him, “Some of these guys are damn near on a ra­zor’s edge when they fly and in their home lives.

“The thing is that no mat­ter how hard an­ybody tries, or no mat­ter what sys­tem you de­vise to pre­clude some­thing, there’s al­ways some­body who will find a way to louse it up,” Him­mel said. “There’s no per­fect sys­tem.”

* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend


Sign up for

On Home Page         


  • St­ar found to have lit­tle plan­ets over twice as old as our own

  • “Kind­ness curricu­lum” may bo­ost suc­cess in pre­schoolers


  • Smart­er mice with a “hum­anized” gene?

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?


  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

America’s space agency was shaken Thursday by two startling and unrelated reports: One involved claims that astronauts were drunk before flying. The other was news from NASA itself that a worker had sabotaged a computer set for delivery to the international space station.