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.