CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — America's space agency was shaken yesterday by two startling and unrelated reports: One involved claims that astronauts were drunk before flying; the other that a subcontractor's worker had sabotaged a computer planned for delivery to the International Space Station.
It was just another jolt for an operation that has had a rocky year from the start, beginning with the arrest of an astronaut accused of attacking a rival in a love triangle.
"It's going to shake up the world, I'll tell you that," retired NASA executive Seymour Himmel said of the latest reports. "There will be congressional hearings that you will not be able to avoid."
News of the two latest bombshells broke within just a few hours of each other yesterday afternoon. Aviation Week & Space Technology reported on its Web site that a special panel studying astronaut health found that on two occasions, astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so drunk they posed a safety risk.
The independent panel also found "heavy use of alcohol" before launch — within the standard 12-hour "bottle-to-throttle" rule, the magazine reported. The Aviation Week article did not say how long ago the incidents purportedly took place, nor whether it involved pilots or other crew members.
At a press conference to discuss the upcoming space shuttle launch set for Aug. 7, NASA's space operations chief was asked repeatedly about the report. Bill Gerstenmaier would say only that he had never seen an intoxicated astronaut before flight or been involved in any disciplinary action related to that.
Mr. Gerstenmaier also revealed that an employee for a NASA subcontractor had cut the wires in a computer that was about to be loaded into Space Shuttle Endeavour for launch.
The subcontractor, which he wouldn't name, contacted NASA 1½ weeks ago, as soon as it learned that another computer had been damaged deliberately, Mr. Gerstenmaier said. Had the contractor not discovered the problem, NASA would have uncovered it by testing the computer before launch, he said, adding that safety was not an issue.
He refused to speculate on the worker's motive. He also wouldn't say where the sabotage occurred. He said it did not happen in Florida and had nothing to do with an ongoing strike at the Kennedy Space Center by a machinists union.
The worker also damaged a similar computer that was not meant to fly in space, Mr. Gerstenmaier said. NASA hopes to fix the computer in time for launch next month. It's intended to be installed inside the space station to collect data from strain gauges on a major outside beam.
Former shuttle commander Eileen Collins said she was as stunned as anyone to learn of the astronaut alcohol claims in the upcoming health report and fears it will hurt the image of the astronauts, at least in the short term.
"I'm anxious to hear more details because this is very out of character from anything I have ever experienced," she said. "I hope people can really look at the good things astronauts do."