Astronauts fly when unfit for duty

A panel finds that NASA culture squelches concerns about crew member health and competence.

It took the Challenger and Columbia disasters to prod NASA into changing a culture that prevented the agency from resolving critical safety issues – issues that killed two shuttle crews.

Now another panel of investigators has found echoes of that culture in NASA's managing of its astronauts and medical personnel. Space agency officials say they are moving as quickly as they can to uproot it.

The most notorious examples involve allegations that on at least two occasions an astronaut was so drunk before a flight that flight surgeons and fellow astronauts raised concerns to local managers. But the inebriated crew members were allowed to fly anyway. According to the panel's final report, released during a briefing Friday, some senior flight surgeons said their opinions on astronauts' fitness for duty are so routinely ignored that they are now less likely to report poor performance or health issues.

"There's been a lot of attention placed on the alcohol abuse, but it goes beyond that. It goes back to this culture issue, and it will take senior leadership to break through it," says Rep. Bart Gordon (D) of Tennessee, chairman of the House Science Committee. "NASA has a lot of explaining to do."

Representative Gordon says his committee will hold hearings on the matter in September after the agency finishes its next shuttle mission, scheduled for launch Aug. 9.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin called for the probe into medical and mental-health support for flight crews last February, after astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested in Florida on charges of battery and attempted kidnapping in a case involving a romantic triangle.

The panel of outside aerospace medicine experts – as well as a second, internal group – concluded that actions driven by passion are extremely difficult to foresee. But during the course of their interviews with 27 astronauts, flight surgeons, and crew family members, they uncovered other problems that can be as potentially dangerous to a mission as faulty hardware. Several astronauts and flight surgeons said that when they raised concerns about the health, behavior, or competence of crew members, managers disregarded the information.

Some of the panel's 30 major recommendations can be applied relatively quickly, according to Col. Richard Bachmann Jr., commander of the US Air Force's School of Aerospace Medicine and the panel's chairman. Indeed, NASA officials are moving quickly on several fronts, according to Shana Dale, NASA's deputy administrator. Not the least of these has been a specific reminder to the crew of the next shuttle mission that the agency's 12-hour "bottle to throttle" rule will be strictly enforced. It prohibits astronauts from being under the influence of alcohol or its aftereffects within 12 hours of flight. Until now, officials say, it's been applied to crew members flying the agency's T-38 jet trainers, and by custom – but not explicitly – to shuttle launches.

Other panel recommendations require changes to "deep-seated, long-standing aspects of astronaut, flight surgeon, and safety cultures," Colonel Bachmann said in a briefing Friday. Among the toughest to change may be the astronaut culture: Astronauts are highly motivated, highly competitive, and aren't afraid to try to tweak the system's nose.

But that competitiveness and the desire to reach space, particularly among military fliers, can lead them to keep mum about any weaknesses that might hamper their chances, Col. Mike Mullane notes in his memoir "Riding Rockets." He writes that as an astronaut finalist, he dodged several topics in his last interview with a psychologist. "I had a 1 in 7 chance of making the astronaut cut," he writes. "I lied, even when telling the truth might have helped my cause."

The tendency of some astronauts to mask the unpleasant or uncomfortable is compounded by the decades-old mystery that surrounds crew selection in the face of "a scarce and decreasing opportunity to fly," the panel notes.

Among the Bachmann panel's recommendations: make the selection process and criteria transparent and explicit, and schedule flights as far in advance as possible to reduce anxiety.

The medical care the agency provides to astronauts is highly fragmented, the panel found, and often does not become focused until an astronaut receives a crew assignment. The panel recommends that each astronaut instead be assigned to a team of flight surgeons who will oversee that astronaut's care throughout his or her time as an astronaut. This could help encourage astronauts to speak up if they face health or behavioral problems. And it would allow physicians to spot potential problems early and intervene if necessary before problems rise to the level of safety or fitness-for-duty issues.

"It's an inescapable fact that human spaceflight involves humans," says former astronaut Ellen Ochoa, now director of flight crew operations at the Johnson Space Center. "It's complex in terms of how we design vehicles and prepare them for flight, and it's complex in making sure that we train people – both on the ground and in orbit to carry out their tasks – to understand that everybody's human." NASA needs to have policies, expectations, and practices in place that ensure missions are conducted "as safely as we can and successfully as we can," she adds.

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