NASA officials vowed yesterday to investigate reports that astronauts were drunk before missions on at least two occasions, but several former astronauts questioned the claims, saying that they were too closely monitored to risk breaking the rules on drinking before a flight.
"I didn't see any use of alcohol that infringed safety," said Tom Jones, who served on four shuttle missions before retiring in 2001. "I didn't see any flight surgeons who would have hesitated to blow the whistle."
Susan Kilrain, who left the corps in 2002, said that "there weren't even any rumors" of astronauts flying drunk.
NASA officials said at a news conference in Washington that the reports of drinking, drawn from anonymous interviews, were still unconfirmed. Nonetheless, they said, a warning has been sent to astronauts reiterating the agency's current policy, which prohibits drinking alcohol 12 hours before a flight.
Ellen Ochoa, NASA's director of flight crew operations, said the agency immediately will embark on creating a formal code of conduct to address drinking and other aspects of astronaut behavior.
The claims of drunken astronauts were in a report on astronaut health care conducted by an independent eight-member panel convened by NASA. The 12-page report, released yesterday, contained only three paragraphs on pre-flight drinking.
NASA doctors told interviewers of "some episodes of heavy use of alcohol by astronauts in the immediate pre-flight period," the report said.
"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," according to the report. "However, the individuals were still allowed to fly."
The report provided no other details of the incidents.
Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann Jr., the panel's chairman, said at the news conference that one case involved a NASA astronaut who traveled on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. The other case involved an astronaut on a shuttle mission that ultimately was delayed for technical reasons.
The astronaut, still intoxicated, then attempted to fly on a T-38 jet, Bachmann said.
He said the panel did not investigate the claims to determine if they were true, leaving that to NASA.
The panel was created after the arrest in February of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who was charged with assault and attempted kidnapping of a rival in a love triangle. Nowak was fired from the astronaut corps.
The space agency was concerned that it wasn't adequately monitoring the mental health of astronauts and wanted an investigation of its shortcomings.
The panel interviewed eight NASA doctors, several of whom described instances in which they alerted officials to medical or behavioral problems and were ignored.
"This disregard was described as `demoralizing' to the point where they said they are less likely to report concerns of performance decrement," the report said.
Officials pledged yesterday to foster a culture of openness, saying they planned to survey the astronauts and flight surgeons to address the panel's concerns.
NASA deputy administrator Shana Dale said the space agency will also implement the panel's recommendation for yearly psychological reviews of all astronauts.
The astronauts are screened for psychological problems when they apply for the job. Only those later selected for missions aboard the space station receive further testing.
Alan Zarembo writes for the Los Angeles Times.