Will NASA learn to learn?

In 1986, NASA and Morton Thiokol engineers warned administrators that the fuel-tank seals on the Space Shuttle Challenger were likely to fail in sufficiently cold weather. NASA’s leadership ignored them, and the result was seven dead astronauts and a destroyed spacecraft.
So catastrophic an event would, one might think, be sufficient to effect permanent changes in an agency’s management culture. But in 2003 it was the same story: Engineers leery of fatal damage to the Columbia shuttle from the shredding of its foam insulation were ignored, and seven more astronauts and another spacecraft met a violent end.
Now it appears that NASA, despite calling for its own internal investigation about the behavior and general psychological well-being of its astronauts, would really rather not acknowledge the results.


On at least two occasions and perhaps more, NASA officials were warned by flight surgeons and flight crew members that one or more astronauts preparing to be launched into space were sufficiently drunk to endanger their missions. NASA ignored these warnings. From NewScientist.com:

Two drinking incidents are listed in the report (PDF) released by NASA on Friday. In one case, an astronaut warned that a fellow astronaut was too drunk to fly a T-38 trainer jet after their scheduled shuttle flight had been cancelled due to mechanical problems, committee chair Richard Bachmann, commander of the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, said at a NASA press conference. The other case involved a NASA astronaut flying to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft launched from Kazakhstan.
Bachmann provided no further details, despite insistent questioning by reporters, but did admit the panel had heard of other incidents not listed in the report.

How alarmed are NASA higher-ups?

NASA quarantines astronauts for a week before flight, but allows them to have alcohol in crew quarters. [NASA deputy administrator Shana] Dale has no plans to alter that policy, saying, “I think it’s okay after work to go back and have a beer.”

In other words, civilians driving around in Tauruses and Civics can’t have open containers in their vehicles, but it’s okay for the commanders of a spaceship to pop a few tops as long as it’s after hours.
What’s wrong with these people? Even if no one were to get plastered outright, is it that much to ask to keep booze and missions separate and obviate a potential, and now very well documented, hazard? If the picture being drawn here is accurate, Dale should be canned simply for having no apparent grasp of what’s at stake in her own command.
Flight surgeons now say that they will be less likely to report problems in the future because they believe no one cares what they say anyway. If you were a (sober) astronaut, would you feel like suiting up under such circumstances?
At the root of all of the bad decisions lies pressure to stick to launch deadlines. The political and economic costs of delays can indeed be tremendous, but any space program that fails to make safety its number-one concern has no business operating airport baggage carts, much less spacecraft. Let alone that this is the right thing; it’s mere self-interest. If NASA doesn’t want to attract hutbags and loose cannons into its astronaut fold, shouldn’t it be concerned with its reputation in matter of, I don’t know, exploding vehicles? People flying its machines while three sheets to the solar wind?
The organization resembles a would-be Casanova with a veiled insecurity complex, a lover who insists on asking his partner in the sweaty aftermath, “Tell me the truth — how was I?” only to hear “Is it in yet? And by the way, you smell” — and summarily dismisses this assessment as trivial, biased, or otherwise dispensable and unnecessary input.
Either get a grip or quit pretending you’re fit for a roll in the space hay.

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  1. #1 by Bill from Dover on July 29, 2007 - 4:22 pm

    Hmmm… I wonder where these people get their morality from?

  2. #2 by Bill from Dover on July 29, 2007 - 4:22 pm

    Hmmm… I wonder where these people get their morality from?

  3. #3 by AJ on July 29, 2007 - 8:41 pm

    In other words, civilians driving around in Tauruses and Civics can’t have open containers in their vehicles, but it’s okay for the commanders of a spaceship to pop a few tops as long as it’s after hours.

    Er, no. Civilians are free to “pop a few tops” once they get home, just as astronauts are able to do once they get back to their quarters on the ground. (Alcohol consumption is forbidden in space by NASA, and none of the allegations have claimed astronauts have imbibed once in orbit.)
    Another thing to keep in mind is that the allegations here are pretty flimsy. Just a few sentences in a 12-page report, and it took repeated questioning by reporters to get Bachmann to provide any more details about the incidents. A lot of people in the astronaut corps and those who work with them are openly skeptical of the claims. It doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, just that there’s a lack of hard evidence.

  4. #4 by Kevin Beck on July 29, 2007 - 9:33 pm

    AJ,
    Okay, thanks– I wrongly took “crew quarters” to mean quarters on spacecraft. In this case I’m relieved to be wrong, because I found the idea that the deputy director was being cavalier about drinking in orbit in the midst of the latest allegations a little strange.
    I hope you’re right about the claims themselves as well, but I can’t fathom why flight surgeons would stick their necks out for nothing unless they have personal grudges against the astronauts they implicated.

  5. #5 by Jimmy on July 30, 2007 - 1:19 am

    Er, no. Civilians are free to “pop a few tops” once they get home, just as astronauts are able to do once they get back to their quarters on the ground. (Alcohol consumption is forbidden in space by NASA, and none of the allegations have claimed astronauts have imbibed once in orbit.)

    I don’t think the issue is whether astronauts should be allowed to drink at home at all, so much as whether they should be allowed to drink during the preparation for a mission. Especially during the period leading directly up to a launch, when one would think all their stimuli would be tightly controlled to ensure fitness.

  6. #6 by blf on July 30, 2007 - 1:37 am

    I would have assumed rules similar to those which apply to aircraft pilots would also apply here. I’m not quite certain what the aircraft rules are, but a (private) pilot friend of mine refuses to consume any alcohol for at least 24 hours (possibly longer, I can’t recall exactly what she once told me) prior to flying.
    Also, unlike the two disasters mentioned, this (potential) disaster is not a problem of hardware per se, so I can easily imagine the checks and so on would miss the problem. Of course, the warnings, and now the report, should cause a review of both the relevant checks and the pre-flight rules.

  7. #7 by SDC on July 31, 2007 - 5:10 pm

    There was drinking on the Russian spacecraft?
    I’m shocked!

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