Astronauts may have flown drunk
NASA failed to heed warnings, report says

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - With all the risks of space flight, it's hard to imagine NASA would allow a tipsy astronaut near a rocketship about to take off.

But that's what is suggested in a report Friday from an independent panel that chastizes the space agency for failing to heed warnings about astronauts drinking before a flight.

The chairman of the panel, Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann Jr., cited two cases - involving a shuttle astronaut and an astronaut flying on a Russian spacecraft - in which heavy drinking worried flight doctors and other astronauts enough to speak up, but to no avail.

Revelations in the report rocked the space agency with renewed concerns about whether NASA has fixed many of the problems that led to the demise of the space shuttle Columbia.

A panel created after that disaster four years ago urged the agency to repair a flawed safety culture that squelched warnings from lower-level employees.

Speaking by phone to a Washington news conference, Bachmann said the panel was told about multiple instances involving alcohol. He said the most detailed involved two astronauts but didn't say when they occurred.

In one case, a colleague warned that a shuttle astronaut had had too much to drink but only after the mission was delayed for mechanical reasons, Bachmann said. The astronaut then wanted to fly a jet from Florida back home to Houston. Bachmann said he didn't know the outcome of that incident.

The second incident, he said, involved warnings of alcohol involving an astronaut flying on the Russians' Soyuz spacecraft headed for the international space station.

In such a situation, Russia would have the authority to overrule NASA if the U.S. space agency wanted to prevent the astronaut from flying. Whether NASA officials tried to intervene is unknown.

Ellen Ochoa, an astronaut who heads flight crew operations for NASA, said drinking and toasts are common in Russia, even just seven hours before flight.

Bachmann said it was not the panel's mission to investigate allegations or verify them and that NASA would have to ferret out details.

'There's certainly no intent to impugn the entire astronaut corps,' Bachmann said. 'We don't have enough data to call it alcohol abuse. We have no way of knowing if these are the only two incidents that have ever occurred in the history of the astronaut corps or if they're the tip of a very large iceberg.'

The independent panel was created by NASA to assess its health screening after the high-profile arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak in February after she drove across the country to confront a romantic rival.