By Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral, Florida
The reports of inebriated astronauts climbing aboard spaceships for launch are bad enough, but the fact that colleagues felt helpless to do anything about it strikes a sombre and unfortunately familiar chord.
Deputy administrator Shana Dale said addressing the problems would take time
Investigations into both of Nasa's fatal shuttle accidents determined that workers were often discouraged, even ostracised, for raising safety concerns or voicing objections.
That led managers to ignore evidence of fuel leaks on the shuttle booster rockets before Challenger was lost in 1986, and to gloss over warnings that a debris impact suspected during shuttle Columbia's climb to orbit in 2003 could have critically damaged the ship's heat shield.
Nasa paid a horrible price to learn its mistakes. Yet the climate that keeps people from speaking out apparently has survived.
'Medical advice disregarded'
An outside taskforce looking into astronaut mental health issues cited two cases where panel members were told of astronauts boarding spaceships and training jets for flight, despite concerns by doctors and other crewmembers that he or she was drunk.
"Instances were described where major crew medical or behaviour problems were identified to astronaut leadership, and the medical advice was disregarded," read the report, which was released on Friday. "The individuals were still permitted to fly...
"This disregard was described as 'demoralising' to the point where they said they are less likely to report concerns of performance decrement."
The report was based on lengthy interviews with 14 current astronauts and five astronaut family members.
One incident occurred on the space shuttle, then later the same day aboard a T-38 training jet. The other took place in Russia during launch on a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station.
Specific details of the incidents were not pursued by the taskforce, which Nasa chief Michael Griffin convened in the wake of the arrest of former astronaut Lisa Nowak. She now faces charges in Florida for allegedly attacking a woman involved with her ex-lover, former astronaut Bill Oefelein.
Both Ms Nowak and Mr Oefelein were fired from Nasa and have rejoined the Navy. Ms Nowak's trial is scheduled to begin in September.
The incident sent Nasa on a soul-searching quest to determine if Ms Nowak, who made her first flight on the shuttle last July, had dropped any hints of abnormal behaviour; and if there were some mental health issues endemic to the astronaut corps that needed to be addressed.
Code of conduct
Managers said on Friday that they planned to implement annual psychological screenings for astronauts, to supplement the single mental health evaluation that is administered prior to acceptance into the corps.
They also plan to develop a specific code of conduct to govern astronaut behaviour.
Addressing the alleged problem of widespread alcohol abuse among astronauts would take more time, said deputy administrator Shana Dale.
The agency is launching a formal inquiry into the two alcohol abuse cases cited in the panel's report, as well as to explore how to remove the barriers to open communications that still seem to exist.
"Mike Griffin and I are absolutely committed to an open culture here at Nasa," Ms Dale said.