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Astronauts' Behavior Prompts NASA Policy Debate

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Astronauts' Behavior Prompts NASA Policy Debate

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Astronauts' Behavior Prompts NASA Policy Debate

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

NASA officials responded to charges today that it has let astronauts fly while drunk. The allegations are part of the new report examining how well the agency monitors the mental health of astronauts.

As NPR's Nell Boyce reports, it's just the latest in a string of troubles for NASA.

NELL BOYCE: It's come to this. A top NASA official felt she had to send out a memo to astronauts making it clear that they are not allowed to drink alcohol within 12 hours of flying in space.

Ms. ELLEN OCHOA (Director, Flight Crew Operations Division, NASA): I mean, in case there was any doubt in anybody's mind, we should simply make sure that there is a policy that specifically refers to space flight and not just before flight.

BOYCE: That's Ellen Ochoa, head of NASA's Flight Crew Operations. She said she also sent out the memo for another reason - to remind astronauts of their responsibility to raise any concerns about flight safety. But the report released today suggests that astronauts don't always feel free to bring up issues related to mental health. And it says when flight surgeons raised problems like alcohol use, they felt that NASA management ignored them. Air Force Colonel Richard Bachmann let the panel of independent experts that wrote the report.

Colonel RICHARD BACHMANN (U.S. Air Force): They felt concerned that their professional input seemed to be disregarded, at least, at the local level. And that they were demoralized by that disregard to the point that they felt like they would be less likely to report concerns in the future.

BOYCE: NASA formed this panel in the wake of astronaut Lisa Nowak's arrest last February. She allegedly assaulted a woman who was romantically involved with another astronaut. The panel interviewed flight surgeons, astronauts and members of astronauts' families. Bachmann said the talks were informal and anonymous.

Col. BACHMANN: I think they spoke openly to us, and they gave us their perceptions.

BOYCE: The report's most explosive allegation was that some astronauts drank heavily before flying. It's said that on two occasions, astronauts had been so intoxicated that their colleagues or flights surgeons had raised concerns. But the astronauts were cleared to fly anyway. The report did not contain many details but Bachmann said today that the incidents involved were the space shuttle and a Russian space craft.

Shana Dale, NASA's deputy administrator, says the agency takes this very seriously.

Ms. SHANA DALE (Deputy Administrator, NASA): Now, at this point, what we're dealing with are allegations and we have to find out what the ground truth is. That's our job.

BOYCE: She says they're investigating the matter. The news has appalled some NASA observers. Congressman Bart Gordon chairs the House Committee on Science and Technology.

Representative BART GORDON (Democrat, Tennessee; Chair, House Committee on Science and Technology): Well, I have to say that I think NASA has a lot of explaining to do. This is not the type of behavior that should ever be accepted in our nation's space agency.

BOYCE: But he doesn't think people should focus just on this one finding. He said NASA seems to have a culture where health concerns aren't dealt with properly.

Rep. GORDON: The alcohol abuse is just a symptom. I think it goes beyond that.

BOYCE: He intends to hold a hearing on the matter, perhaps in September. In the meantime, NASA is working with astronauts to develop a formal code of conduct. And it will require astronauts to get annual mental health assessments. The agency also plans to do an anonymous survey of astronauts about these issues.

In an unrelated matter, NASA is also investigating an apparent case of sabotage. Yesterday, the agency said that someone working for a sub-contractor deliberately cut some wires inside a computer. The damage was discovered just weeks before the computer was schedule to go up to the space station.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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