Just how high are these shuttle astronauts flying?

"Drunk astronauts allowed on space shuttle."

There are some headlines that you just don't expect to see.

"Hillary lauds Bush for tough stance in Iraq."

"Vick wins PETA award."

"Lohan, Hilton and Spears form new convent."

And "Drunk astronauts allowed on space shuttle." The thing is, the one about the astronauts is a real headline. I knew those guys had the right stuff, but I didn't know it was 90 proof.

In case you missed it, a publication called "Aviation Week and Space Technology" released reports from Cape Canaveral on Thursday claiming that on at least two occasions astronauts were allowed to fly the space shuttle after doctors and fellow astronauts had warned that they were so drunk that they posed a safety risk. At least one NASA official confirmed the report - anonymously, of course.

I wonder what you have to blow on the Breathalyzer to be too drunk to fly a space ship? They tell me that two beers can get you in a lot of trouble if you are trying to fly a Camaro, but I don't know how heavy the traffic is en route to the international space station.

Apparently, NASA has a 12-hour "bottle to throttle" rule, which means that the brave men who soar toward the stars are not supposed to imbibe before liftoff within one rotation of the clock's little hand.

Remember all those space movies where the gritty flight controllers take a toke on their Lucky Strikes and say, "Let's light this candle?"

Who knew the rocket jockeys flying the thing were already lit?

Is nothing sacred? I grew up with the space program, and if there has ever been a group of people that I held up as heroes, it was our country's astronaut corps. I can still name the original Mercury astronauts. I have pictures of John Glenn and Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom in a scrapbook in the attic. The men who beat the Russians to the moon were known to be the best of the best - the new pioneers, the bravest of the brave.

And now they tell me that some of their cohorts are getting blasted before blasting off.

Say it ain't so, Joe.

Sometimes you have to work hard to find humor in a news story. Once in a great while, all you have to do is list the facts. Today is one of those days. Read this quote by Bart Gordon, who is a congressman from Tennessee and chairman of the House Science and Technology committee.

"If the reports turn out to be true, the agency (NASA) will have a lot of explaining to do."

A lot of esplaining to do? Isn't that what Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy when she and Ethel got mixed up in some hair-brained scheme gone awry? This is the space program for goodness sake - not a 1950s sitcom.

This whole thing arose, of course, out of an investigation spurred by last February's arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak, the space cutie who was caught up in an alleged love-triangle with a fellow astronaut and another NASA employee. Nowak was originally to be charged with attempted murder after driving from Houston to Orlando to confront the woman with whom she was unknowingly sharing an orbit, but the complaints against her, which are still pending, were subsequently reduced.

As of the time this column was filed, we were still awaiting a response by the space administration, but the whole thing is sure to give another black eye to a program that has struggled mightily with public relations over the past decade. This whole deal brings up the question, why?

If the doctors who examined the astronauts said they were too intoxicated to operate the shuttle safely and if fellow astronauts knew their colleagues were already high, why not ground them? Friends don't let friends drive drunk. Why do they let them fly space shuttles?

Apparently, the pressure on NASA for the space shuttle program to succeed is so strong that no one involved is willing to do anything to delay a mission or bring embarrassment to the program. That's why they tell us the go-ahead was given for the Challenger to lift off, even though all systems were not go. This is the reason, they tell us, we have had to hold our breath and count heat tiles after every post-Columbia launch. And this is why spin doctors at Kennedy Space Center have been working overtime since this report first aired on Thursday.

Just a guess here, but I don't think the public outrage over the drunk astronauts will last too long. With so much earth-shattering news breaking around the clock - like Lindsay Lohan being arrested and Paris Hilton being let out of jail - the condition of the people we hire to fly our billion-dollar spaceships won't remain a hot topic for long. Besides, if U.S. Grant could win a war while drunk, flying to the moon while plastered should be a cinch.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.