The Wrong Stuff? NASA Hit By Scandal

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AP
At least twice, astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so drunk they posed a flight-safety risk, an aviation weekly reported Thursday, citing a special panel studying astronaut health.

The report on the panel's findings surfaced just hours after NASA separately said that a space program worker deliberately damaged a computer that is supposed to fly aboard shuttle Endeavour in less than two weeks, an alleged act of sabotage that was caught before the equipment was loaded onto the spaceship.

The independent panel also found "heavy use of alcohol" before launch that was within the standard 12-hour "bottle-to-throttle" rule, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology, which reported the finding on its Web site.

The Aviation Week report doesn't make clear when the alleged incidents occurred, nor does it say whether the intoxication involved crew members who have no role in flying the shuttle or whether it was the pilot and commander.

CBS News has learned that these incidents did not necessarily involve shuttle flights, but may have involved flights on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft or the T-38 jets that astronauts fly.

NASA's space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, said Thursday it would be inappropriate for him to discuss the matter before the report is released on Friday.

Asked if he had ever personally had to deal with a safety issue involving an inebriated astronaut in space, Gerstenmaier replied: "The obvious answer is no. I've never had any instances of that... There's not been a disciplinary action or anything I've been involved with regarding this type of activity," he said.

In Washington, the chairman of the House Science and Technology committee said he hadn't seen the report, "but if the reports of drunken astronauts being allowed to fly prove to be true, I think the agency will have a lot of explaining to do."

"That's not the 'right stuff' as far as I'm concerned," said Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.

NASA plans to release Friday the findings of a pair of reviews — one by the outside committee and the other by an internal panel reporting on the health of astronauts.

A NASA official confirmed that the health report contains claims of alcohol use by astronauts before launch, but said the information is based on anonymous interviews and is unsubstantiated. The official didn't want to be named because NASA plans a news conference Friday to discuss the panel's findings.

"I can't believe it. I never even heard one rumor to that effect, former shuttle commander Rick Searfoss told .

"This floors me as much as the Lisa Nowak thing, almost," Searfoss, who commanded a 1998 mission, said. "I'll tell you what I would do if I was commander. I would in no uncertain terms call the highest person in NASA and say, 'I want this person off the mission,'" and if that didn't work, Searfoss said he would have gone public."

But Searfoss, who was an astronaut from 1991 to 1998 and flew three shuttle missions, said he resented the anonymous allegations in Aviation Week.

"It's a great affront to me to think that I would be lumped in to any group that would have anyone in it that would do something like that," he told King.

"The talk in the hallways of NASA is that one of these incidents was a Soyuz launch and the other was a T-38 jet flight," reports CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood.

The Soyuz is Russia's primary spacecraft. An American on such a craft would basically be along for the ride, reports CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes. A T-38 is a high-speed jet used by NASA for training.

The panel was created following the arrest in February of former space shuttle flier Lisa Nowak, who was implicated in a love triangle.

"This is extremely embarrassing," adds Harwood, "especially in the wake of the Lisa Nowak arrest. You know, the thought of an astronaut getting on board ... in any kind of inebriated condition is a very serious thing indeed."

Aviation Week said the report citing drunkenness does not deal directly with Nowak or mention any other astronaut by name.

The independent panel's NASA consultant and its eight members, which include Air Force experts in aerospace medicine and clinical psychiatry, did not immediately return phone messages or e-mails from the Associated Press Thursday afternoon.

Nowak is accused of attacking the girlfriend of a fellow astronaut — her romantic rival — with pepper spray in a parking lot at Orlando International Airport. Fired by NASA in March, she has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping, battery and burglary with assault.