Congress, NASA

House sets hearing on astronaut health issues

The House Science and Technology Committee has firmed up plans for a hearing on “NASA’s Astronaut Health Care System-Results of an Independent Review”. The hearing is scheduled for Thursday, September 6th at 10 am. The first panel will feature NASA officials (Bryan O’Connor, Ellen Ochoa, and Richard Williams, the agency’s chief health and medical officer) as well as Richard Bachmann, who chaired the independent committee that released its report last month. NASA administrator Mike Griffin will appear alone on a separate panel. The hearing is shaping up to be particularly interesting, particularly if NASA’s internal investigation, to be released later today, turns up no evidence of the allegations of intoxicated astronauts that made the independent committee’s report so infamous.

13 comments to House sets hearing on astronaut health issues

  • Wonderful. So NASA gets to have to prove a negative to Congress. Good luck with that.

  • Andy Motherway

    Alan Boyle has a decent post regarding the “drunken astronaut” claims.

    In it he includes an excerpt from a recent interview with Alan Bean in which the Apollo vet articulates the frustration a lot of the astronauts must be dealing with right now.

    http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2007/08/28/337183.aspx

  • Donald F. Robertson

    Anonymous, do you have an E-mail address I can send a document to. If so, let me know at DonaldFR@DonaldFRobertson.com

    Thanks!

    – Donald

  • anonymous

    Honestly, after reviewing some of the details, O’Connor’s investigation is inadequate to answer these allegations, for several reasons.

    First, there’s the issue of NASA investigating itself. As independent as the S&MA folks may be, they don’t have the absolute independence of, say, an external IG or an external commission. At the end of the day, S&MA, the CMO, and the astronaut corps all report to the NASA Administrator. Even if no one is covering up things from above, that puts some unspoken pressure on the both the investigators and interviewees to come up with a noncontroversial or “right” answer.

    Second, there’s the issue of NASA astronauts investigating NASA astronauts. O’Connor himself and some members of his team are ex-astronauts. As much faith as I have in O’Connor personally, I would not have an astronaut investigate other astronauts. Former co-workers should not investigate each other. At a minimum, it creates perceived, and potentially even real, conflicts of interest at the personal level.

    Third, there’s an issue of investigative competence. Although as bright and capable of reviewing records and asking questions as anyone else, S&MA folks are not professional investigators. They don’t have the training and skills that are involved in unearthing chains of evidence or conducting penetrating interviews.

    Fourth, the investigation of the Shuttle drinking allegation stopped well short of being comprehensive, nevertheless exhaustive. According to the AP article, O’Connor narrowed the allegation to one of three possible Shuttle missions and then talked to only two astronauts on each of those missions and the associated astronaut chiefs at the time. If I was a staffer on a relevant Congressional committee, I’d certainly want to know why O’Connor picked those three missions (versus investigating dozens of other Shuttle missions) and why only two astronauts from each mission were interviewed (versus all the astronauts from those missions).

    Fifth, the details of the investigation into the Soyuz drinking allegation are being withheld due to “privacy issues”, even though a flight surgeon claimed that the astronaut was so drunk that there were worries that he/she would “suffer an airway obstruction”. The astronaut corps has used the medical privacy shield for questionable purposes in the past, and this is another disturbing use.

    For reference, the AP article is at http://news.aol.com/story/_a/nasa-finds-no-evidence-in-alcohol-probe/20070829030609990001?ncid=NWS00010000000001.

    I imagine this whole affair will end at this Congressional hearing. Although Congress will be presented with two contradictory sets of evidence — the independent panel’s report and O’Connor’s investigation — there’s little incentive for Congress to press farther.

    That said, based on all the above and assuming nothing more (positive or
    negative) comes out of the hearing or the text of O’Connor’s report, if I was a staffer on the relevant committee, I would press for a more independent, competent, comprehensive, and open investigation. These are very serious allegations, and the inherent conflicts of interest and admitted limits of the S&MA investigation just don’t cut the mustard for adequately addressing the allegations. We have two separate, if anonymous, allegations of an astronaut being drunk during launch, one of which was made by a flight surgeon. Either flight surgeons and other key support staff for the astronaut corps are lying about the behavior of the very astronauts they’re charged with protecting, or a couple astronauts really are flying drunk. Either is a very serious situation that needs to be properly investigated (and remedied if current today).

    I sympathize with the opinion that Mr. Simberg expressed on Transterrestrial Musings — that there are much bigger problems at NASA, with Constellation technical and budgetary shortcomings in particular, than drunk astronauts and/or lying flight surgeons. But unlike this summer’s earlier investigation and hearing into IG Cobb’s swearing at employees and having too many lunches with the prior NASA Administrator, this drunk astronaut/lying flight surgeon problem really does rise to the level of Congressional oversight. Even setting aside the lives involved or the public image of the nation’s civil human space flight program, these professionals are charged with operating machinery that has cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. NASA shouldn’t have to prove a negative, but I would argue that Congress is more than justified to ask for a more independent and comprehensive investigation given the gravity of the allegations and the limited and potentially conflicted investigation to date.

    Finally, and this is just my opinion, but I think these allegations and the subsequent investigation go to deeper problems with the astronaut corps — its size, selection processes, management, and influence within the agency.

    For example, court documents released yesterday claim that Nowak has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that impairs social interaction — something that’s obviously key to working with a mission team. If true, I have to question why Nowak was ever brought into the astronaut corps to begin with, and why she was allowed to remain, long before her now infamous drive to Florida. Why isn’t the astronaut selection process and medical monitoring screening out such mental impairments?

    And with Nowak’s partner Olefein, we have another astronaut engaging in damaging fraternization (to put it lightly) with female astronauts and staff that was allowed to go on for some time. Why isn’t the astronaut corps subjected to the same minimal standards of conduct that govern the rest of corporate America? And what’s wrong with the management, oversight, and “policing” (for lack of a better word) of the astronaut corps that it’s not detecting and/or addressing such transgressions before they get out of control?

    We also have an astronaut corps that is arguably twice as big as it needs to be, with half (literally scores) of its members unflown. Worse, the corps is still growing with new astronaut classes even while the number of flight opportunities in the coming years is going to shrink dramatically. Taxpayers are paying for astronauts and training that never get put to use. There’s a good IG report on this at:

    http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/oig/hq/old/inspections_assessments/g-01-035.pdf.

    The key finding of which is:

    “… costs for the astronaut program were higher than necessary and individuals trained to be astronauts were not all being used in a manner commensurate with their expensive training.”

    This just begs the question of why the astronaut corps is as twice as big as it needs to be and growing when it shouldn’t be. What is preventing NASA from cost-effectively managing the size of the astronaut corps, just like the size of any other workforce?

    As a result of this oversized astronaut corps, we also have former astronauts, like Horowitz and Ivins, being moved into key management and advisory positions over major development programs, when they lack development experience and are arguably not qualified (and maybe even have corporate conflicts-of-interest, like Horowitz).

    I don’t want to sound like I’m calling for the dissolution of an American civil astronaut corps. I’m not, and I think the corps, properly constituted and managed, can serve a good purpose. And again, I agree that there are much bigger problems at NASA, particularly technical and budgetary shortcomings in Constellation that are being left in Horowitz’s wake.

    But if I were Administrator, instead of just going from one astronaut scandal to the next, paying too much for astronauts I don’t need, and trying to find management homes for astronauts that aren’t flying, I would take the opportunity presented by the confluence of all these problems to shrink the corps to a size that’s consistent with future flight opportunities, to fix problems with the selection and management of the corps, and to put in place minimum standards for key management positions elsewhere in the agency, whether filled by astronauts or not.

    My 2 cents… FWIW.

  • anonymous.space

    “Anonymous, do you have an E-mail address I can send a document to.”

    Yes, it’s “anonymous.space@yahoo.com”. Should also be linked in my screenname above (although it wasn’t in my previous post).

  • Adrasteia

    If true, I have to question why Nowak was ever brought into the astronaut corps to begin with

    It’s really very simple. The other nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine in one million individuals with high functioning autism AREN’T homicidal.

  • anonymous.space

    “It’s really very simple. The other nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine in one million individuals with high functioning autism AREN’T homicidal.”

    Although Adrasteia is joking, just to be clear, that was not my point. I did not mean to equate autism with homicidal tendencies. But I did mean to equate autism with a reduction in socialization and social skills — something that is critical to working as part of a Shuttle (or any human space) mission team. Assuming the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome is correct, from the perspective of critical social skills, it’s not clear why Nowak was ever selected for, and allowed to remain in, the astronaut corps.

    FWIW…

  • Either flight surgeons and other key support staff for the astronaut corps are lying about the behavior of the very astronauts they’re charged with protecting, or a couple astronauts really are flying drunk.

    Or the flight surgeon was exaggerating. Perhaps more pre-flight alcohol was consumed by some astronaut than the FS approved of.

    As for the Asperger’s thing, I suspect that the lawyers went back through her history and found some (plausible) mild symptoms of it in her past (perhaps even in childhood) and seized on it as more evidence to buttress their case for the insanity plea. It’s hard to imagine that anyone suffering from Aspergers’ to a severe degree would have made it as far as she did in both the Navy and NASA. And I agree with Adrasteia–I think that this is a scummy tactic on the part of the defense team, and that Asperger’s sufferers (and admittedly, beneficiaries, since it does also confer some benefits that makes many of them high achievers) should be legitimately upset at the implications.

  • anonymous.space

    “Or the flight surgeon was exaggerating. Perhaps more pre-flight alcohol was consumed by some astronaut than the FS approved of.”

    If that’s the true scenario, it still begs questions like: Who overrode the flight surgeon’s recommendation and why? If nobody overrode the flight surgeon, then why did the flight surgeon ignore his own observations? Did he/she get external pressure or just exercise poor judgement?

    “As for the Asperger’s thing, I suspect that the lawyers went back through her history”

    You’re probably right — it’s just the defense team grasping at straws.

    But if not, and my (admittedly layman) interpretation of the document is right and the Asperger’s is a current diagnosis by a court psychiatrist, again, it begs all kinds of questions. Why didn’t the CMO and flight surgeon staff screen Nowak out during the application process? Do they just not have the right experience or equipment to make such a diagnosis? Or are they ignoring some diagnoses? Same goes for Nowak’s many years of service in the corps.

    My 2 cents… FWIW.

  • Outside the Beltway

    In addition to his experience as an astronaut, O’Conner held a number of responsible positions in the Shuttle Program:

    “In March 1986 … Assistant (Operations) to the Space Shuttle Program Manager, as well as first Chairman of NASA’s new Space Flight Safety Panel, jobs he held until February 1988 and 1989 respectively. He subsequently served as Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations from February 1988 until August 1991….O’Connor returned to NASA Headquarters …Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Flight. He was immediately assigned the task of developing a comprehensive flight safety improvement plan for the Space Shuttle, … Then in late summer 1992, he was assigned as leader of the negotiating team that traveled to Moscow to establish the framework for what subsequently became the Shuttle/MIR program.…in April 1994, O’Connor was reassigned as Director, Space Shuttle Program.”
    http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/oconnor-bd.html

    If the alleged incidents of astronaut intoxication took place during these times, Mr. O’Conner was in a very awkward position of investigating incidents that took place on his watch and over which he had some degree of responsibility. I’m amazed that he took the assignment to lead the investigation if it presented such high potential for conflict of interest.

  • But if I were Administrator, instead of just going from one astronaut scandal to the next, paying too much for astronauts I don’t need, and trying to find management homes for astronauts that aren’t flying, I would take the opportunity presented by the confluence of all these problems to shrink the corps to a size that’s consistent with future flight opportunities, to fix problems with the selection and management of the corps, and to put in place minimum standards for key management positions elsewhere in the agency, whether filled by astronauts or not.

    Well, either that, or change his architecture to allow more flight opportunities. I’d actually prefer the latter. But to have this size of an astronaut corps with ESAS certainly makes no sense.

  • Adrasteia

    “Why didn’t the CMO and flight surgeon staff screen Nowak out during the application process?”

    NASA doesn’t screen for introversion, they screen for engineering talent. From reading her bio Nowak had this in spades. The fact that she likely wouldn’t enjoy hanging out with her coworkers at the bar on friday night would have zero impact on her job performance.

    What likely drove her nuts was the stress of dealing with all the bullshit of internal politics to compete for flight opportunities. NASA has 100 astronauts competing against each other for 28 slots per year, I’m surprised more of them aren’t trying to off each other.

  • anonymous.space

    “NASA doesn’t screen for introversion, they screen for engineering talent.”

    Actually, there is a psychological screening as part of the astronaut application process. What I’m asking is, if she did have a prior autism-spectrum diagnosis, was the diagnosis or condition picked up as part of the screening process? If yes, why was she still allowed to join the corps? If not, why not and how does the psychological screening need to be changed in the future?

    If it was not a prior diagnosis and missed during the application process, are there regular check-ups to identify negative psychological changes? If not, why not? If yes, why was she allowed to remain in the corps and/or how do these check-ups need to be changed in the future?

    “What likely drove her nuts was the stress of dealing with all the bullshit of internal politics to compete for flight opportunities. NASA has 100 astronauts competing against each other for 28 slots per year, I’m surprised more of them aren’t trying to off each other.”

    And it’s only going to get worse in the years ahead. It makes no sense for NASA to still be increasing, instead of decreasing, the size of the astronaut corps. Big waste of talent and taxpayer dollars.

    FWIW…

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