JOE PALCA, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca. Ira Flatow is away.
In a moment, we'll turn our attention to Mars. But first, there's some NASA news here on Earth. Two hours ago, the space agency released two reports that looked at the health of the astronaut corps. One of the reports suggested that NASA astronauts were allowed to fly drunk even after flight surgeons and other astronauts said they paused the safety risk. NASA held a news conference today and discussed the allegations. My colleague, science correspondent and editor David Malakoff listened to the news conference, and he joins me now in Studio 3A.
DAVID MALAKOFF: Hey, Joe.
PALCA: So, where are these allegations of drunken astronauts coming from?
MALAKOFF: Well, these allegations are actually coming from folks who either work for the agency or from family members of astronauts. What happened here is that in February, Lisa Nowak, a remember the astronaut corps, took a very bizarre cross-country journey. At the end of which, in Florida, she attempted to assault a woman who she thought was a romantic rival for another astronaut. And after that incident, the NASA Administrator Mike Griffin ordered up a pretty much a top-to-bottom review of NASA's mental health program.
PALCA: So, the initial cause was Nowak's odd behavior, but where did the drunkenness come from?
MALAKOFF: Well, what happened was - Griffin asked two different panels to take a look at the programs. One of the panels was an internal panel. And it really looked at the question of could folks around Nowak have known that she was going to have this strange behavior or should the psychiatrist have known? And then they also asked an independent panel of eight folks to come in from the outside and do a lot of interviews and asked what was going on. And basically what happened is the first panel today said, you know, they talked to a lot of people who worked with Nowak everyday, and as far as they could tell there were no signs that she was going to have this episode of very strange behavior. And the other panel, however, came to some very different kinds of conclusions. They talked to a lot of astronauts. They talked to flight surgeons. They talked to family members. And they really found a lot of problems in NASA's mental health program.
PALCA: But again, it's what the astronauts were alleging to the panel and not that there are some drug, you know, some alcohol test before they got on board the space shuttles, huh? (Unintelligible).
MALAKOFF: That's right. What happened is - here, apparently, several people -we don't know how many - we basically know no details. What we know is that this outside panel was told by several people that they talked to that on at least two occasions, astronauts were so drunk prior to flight that a flight surgeon considered them a safety risk.
PALCA: Right. And we don't know if this if flight on the space shuttle or flight in the trainer or flight in some other sense.
MALAKOFF: We don't know who. We don't know when. We don't know where.
PALCA: And NASA wasn't revealing any of this information.
MALAKOFF: No. However, NASA has said now that these allegations have come forward, that they're going to do an investigation and they are going to find out who, when and where.
PALCA: Now, I should think that would be something they want to know. Well, there was something else that happened this week that was also bizarre -unrelated to this. But apparently, NASA discovered that a piece of computer, like a hardware - computer hardware that was scheduled to fly to the International Space Station next month, I guess, had some wires cut in the back. They said a deliberate act of sabotage. What do we know about that?
MALAKOFF: That's right. Yesterday, NASA held what is usually a very sleepy press conference having to do with whether the shuttle is ready to fly on August 7th or not. And suddenly, sort of out of the blue, one of the officials said and by the way, we want to confirm that there is an investigation ongoing of sabotage of a piece of computer equipment that was supposed to go to the International Space Station this time. What they found was that two wires had been intentionally cut in this piece of equipment. It's not a piece of equipment that's very important from a safety perspective. It's used to transfer information from a sensor on the space station down to Earth. And they were also very clear that this did not occur in Florida where the shuttles are prepped for launch. It was - it happened at a subcontractor who was helping prepare this equipment. And all they've been willing to say at this point is that, they are - that they had at least two investigations ongoing; an internal investigation and that an external law enforcement agencies involved.
PALCA: It's like a kind of a tough day for NASA's (unintelligible).
MALAKOFF: It's been a - not only a tough day, it's been a tough year for NASA.
PALCA: Well, we'll get to the year part later. But, David, thanks very much for the update.
PALCA: David Malakoff is NPR science correspondent and editor here. And he joined me in Studio 3A.