Technology & Science

Red flags raised by NASA doctors unheeded: report

NASA officials ignored senior flight surgeons who raised concerns about astronauts who were drunk or facing other medical or behavioural issues that could have caused mission problems, said a report released Friday.

Problems may be rooted in culture of space agency, says head of panel

NASA officials ignored senior flight surgeons who raised concerns about astronauts who were drunk or facing other medical or behavioural issues that could have caused mission problems, said a report released Friday.

NASA deputy administrator Shana Dale makes a statement to reporters at NASA headquarters in Washington on Friday. ((Charles Dharapak/Associated Press))

"Two specific instances were described where astronauts had been so intoxicated prior to flight that flight surgeons and/or fellow astronauts raised concerns to local on-scene leadership regarding flight safety. However, the individuals were still permitted to fly," according to the report from the U.S. space agency's astronaut health-care system review committee.

"Instances were described where major crew medical or behavioural problems were identified to astronaut leadership and the medical advice was disregarded," the report also said.

"Several senior flight surgeons expressed their belief that their medical opinions regarding astronaut fitness for duty, flight safety and mission accomplishment were not valued by leadership other than to validate that all [medical] systems were 'go' for on-time mission completion."

The intoxicated astronauts were not named, and in a televised response, NASAdeputy administrator Shana Dalesaid the incidents were allegations. "They did not verify these claims," she said.

But NASA takes the allegations seriously, she said. "We will act immediately on the more troubling aspects of the report, with respect to alcohol use and the anecdotal references to resistance of agency leadership to advice or criticisms about the fitness and readiness of individuals for space flight."

The committee was headed by U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann. He said the committee did not try to nail down details of the incidents, but "there were incidents involving both aircraft and spacecraft," he told reporters.

The committee included them in the report to illustrate the larger issue, that problems are rooted in the culture and practices of NASA, he said. Flight surgeons felt that "their professional input seemed to be disregarded."

Panel set up after Nowak incident

NASA administrator Michael Griffin set up a panel to review astronaut medical and psychological screening after astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested in February and accused of plotting to abduct Colleen Shipman, who Nowak believed had replaced her as the girlfriend of shuttle pilot William Oefelein.

The report concluded that "there is no periodic psychological evaluation or testing conducted on astronauts.… There is no routine behavioural health assessment for commonly occurring issues such as depression, anxiety, relationship stress, substance use, or the cumulative effects of normal life events."

Nowak, who was fired by NASA after the incident, flew on the shuttle Discovery in July 2006.

The committee included Bachmann, an aerospace medicine expert, and seven government and military medical and psychologicalexperts.

It recommended NASA pay more attention to its existing procedures, co-ordinate its fragmented medical processes — under which an astronaut could see many different doctors, for example — and listen when doctors warn about potential problems.

It also said there should be a code of conduct for astronauts."The absence of a code of conduct and its enforcement, and the lack of management action to limit inappropriate activity, increases the likelihood of aberrant behaviour occurring and decreases the likelihood of such behaviour being reported. "

Dale said the NASA administration would act on that recommendation. She also said NASA will preparean anonymous survey of astronautsand flight surgeons to collectfeedback on the report.

"Preparation for exploration-class space flight,"the report said, "requires NASA to focus much more attention on human behaviour."

An internal NASA report on Nowak's behavior and history prior to the incident in February was also made public Friday. It concluded that there were no indications of medical or psychological problems in Nowak's medical or employment history.

"Most of the employees interviewed said they've spent countless hours trying to determine if they had noticed any behaviour priorto the incident that couldhave alerted them to Nowak's subsequent actions; none could think of any," the Johnson Space Centerinternal review said.

now