Opinion

Astronauts fly drunk

So much for the image of astronauts as clean-scrubbed, all-American straight arrows.

First, we have a homicidal astronaut in diapers. Now, it's astronauts who fuel themselves up before blasting off.

A special investigative panel announced last week that, rather than postpone launches of the shuttle and other spacecraft, NASA officials allowed astronauts to fly drunk. The panel also noted that this probably is the result of the long-standing culture of heavy alcohol use in the astronaut program to which NASA has turned a blind eye.

Anyone who has read Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" or has seen the movie knows that the astronauts have never been Boy Scouts. Even in the early days, they were recruited from the ranks of fighter pilots and test pilots, who were renowned for living in the fast lane while on the ground.

But it was assumed that when the time came to go into space, the astronauts reverted to the same professionalism and prowess they always had shown as pilots. The public would have been shocked then -- and should be now -- that astronauts might have been intoxicated when they climbed into the cockpit.

Yet the investigators told of one unidentified astronaut who was drunk when he reported for a shuttle launch. And when the liftoff was scrubbed for mechanical problems, he was drunk again when he boarded a NASA T-38 jet for a flight home.

Another unnamed astronaut was drunk before boarding a Russian rocket for a flight to the International Space Station. Panelists said they were not sure if these incidents were isolated or just the tip of the iceberg.

However, the panel made no bones about defining the source of the problem. The report said that alcohol use and other behavioral issues are "so deeply ingrained and long-standing that it will take senior leadership action to remediate them."

Despite the report, alcohol has not been banned in astronaut quarters, and it will be available to crew members of the shuttle Endeavour while they are in quarantine three days before the flight. That may be the right decision; simply banning alcohol in astronauts' quarters would be window dressing and would not address the root of the problem.

As the report stated, senior officials are going to have to come up with a program that deals with a decades-old tradition of alcohol-fueled machismo. Efforts to change that tradition may entail not only confronting the full range of psychological and behavioral issues inside the astronaut corps but also among the ranks of young men and women who aspire to be astronauts.

We realize that some of the traits that make good astronauts may also lead to heavy drinking, carousing and other risky behavior. In short, it may be unrealistic to expect astronauts to "test the envelope" while on duty but be model citizens on the ground.

Nonetheless, their job is to fly a multimillion-dollar spacecraft paid for by the taxpayers. NASA should be able to demand and ensure that they are sober when they strap in for a flight.

IN SUMMARY

Investigators found that astronauts reported for duty while drunk and were allowed to fly.

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