Topic: Science & Technology

The Case of the Inebriated Astronauts
(8/20/2007)

The recent NASA scandal involving Space Shuttle astronauts who apparently flew the billion dollar craft while intoxicated would seem to involve little controversy; the revelation is embarrassing and does not speak well for the agency's safety procedures or medical clearance process. Apparently nobody at NASA thought to actually establish a policy against DUI in space. But along comes op-ed columnist Charles Krauthammer, an indisputably smart and reasonable man who was once a psychotherapist, to argue in a column that the brouhaha is unfair---that being drunk as a skunk is a perfectly legitimate way to endure a Shuttle launch:

"…Cut these cowboys some slack. These are not wobbly Northwest Airlines pilots trying to get off the runway and steer through clouds and densely occupied airspace. An ascending space shuttle, I assure you, encounters very little traffic. And for much of liftoff, the astronaut is little more than spam in a can -- not pilot but guinea pig. With opposable thumbs, to be sure, yet with only one specific task: to come out alive. And by the time the astronauts get to the part of the journey that requires delicate and skillful maneuvering -- docking with the international space station, outdoor plumbing repairs in zero-G -- they will long ago have peed the demon rum into their recycling units…"

Creative approach, Dr. Krauthammer, but wrong. The problem with the drunken astronauts revelation is that it indicts NASA's approach to its duties as steward of a program that is expensive, risky, and the nation's hope, tenuous though it may be, of expanding human civilization beyond this blue marble in space. It doesn't matter that the Shuttle crewmembers can't do any real harm if and when they are smashed. It does matter that NASA entrusted high-profile, difficult missions with major implications for science, national security and American prestige to individuals who have neither the respect for their country nor the professionalism to perform their duties at the top of their game, rather than at the bottom of a bottle. NASA was unethical…irresponsible and careless. An agency that doesn't enforce professional standards cannot be trusted.

Violated trust, not flawed shuttle-driving, is what is wrong with having tipsy astronauts.

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