Press Release

Subcommittee Questions NASA on Health Care of Astronaut Corps

By SpaceRef Editor
September 6, 2007
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Subcommittee Questions NASA on Health Care of Astronaut Corps
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(Washington, DC)  House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO) today led a hearing aimed at investigating the findings of two NASA reports concerning the astronaut medical and behavioral healthcare system.

On July 27, 2007 NASA released the results of an independent external review they commissioned in the wake of the controversy surrounding astronaut Lisa Nowak.  That report was designed to provide “objective assessment, problem identification and recommendations for action” to assure that NASA’s astronaut corps was fit for flight.  The review’s findings identified a number of significant issues related to NASA culture, communication and behavioral concerns including the mention of pre-flight alcohol abuse by astronauts. 

“It is clear that we need to restore confidence in our astronaut program and there are three ways we can accomplish that goal,” said Chairman Udall.  “First, we need to ensure that NASA carries out the recommended thorough and anonymous survey.  Second, I want NASA to come forward with a credible plan to implement the panel’s recommendations.  Finally, I would like to see NASA provide us with a specific timetable for implementing the panel’s recommendations.”

Col. Richard E. Bachmann, Jr., Commander and Dean of the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine – and Chair of the independent review committee – stated in his testimony before the Committee today that, “Although the astronauts and family members interviewed do not represent a random or exhaustive sample of the larger population, the issues they raised during these unstructured interviews were remarkably consistent and compelling and deserve focused action.”

Col. Bachmann further noted that as the review progressed, it became apparent that “major vulnerabilities, underlying root causes and contributing factors extend well beyond the specific medical aspects of NASA operations. Many of the cultural and structural issues identified in the report have existed for many years, pre-dating the current leadership team, are deeply ingrained and will take senior leadership action to remediate them.”

Among the specific concerns noted in the July review:

“Many anecdotes were related that involved risky behaviors by astronauts that were well known to the other astronauts and no apparent action was taken.  Peers and staff fear ostracism if they identify their own or others’ problems.”

“Several senior flight surgeons expressed their belief that their medical opinions regarding astronaut fitness for duty, flight safety and mission accomplishment were not valued by leadership other than to validate that all (medical) systems were “go” for on-time mission completion.  Instances were described where major crew medical or behavioral problems were identified to astronaut leadership and the medical advice was disregarded.  This disregard was described as “demoralizing” to the point where they said they are less likely to report concerns of performance decrement.  Crew members raised concerns regarding substandard astronaut task performance which were similarly disregarded.”

“As the review progressed, it became apparent that major vulnerabilities, underlying root causes, and contributing factors extend well beyond the specific medical aspects of NASA operations…These issues are so ingrained and longstanding that it will take senior leadership action to remediate them.”

“There is no periodic psychological evaluation or testing conducted on astronauts.  Once selected as an astronaut candidate, astronauts have no psychological evaluation for the remainder of their careers unless selected for long duration missions.”

“I don’t think anyone can listen to those findings and think all is well with NASA’s astronaut health care system,” said Udall.

“Col. Bachmann and his review committee have done NASA and the nation a service in identifying a number of issues that need attention and in offering recommendations to improve NASA’s astronaut health care system,” added Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN). “NASA certainly doesn’t have to agree with all of those findings and recommendations.  But I hope that the agency will take them seriously.”

In response to the July review’s findings, NASA announced a number of planned steps the agency would take to follow the panel’s recommendations.  NASA management also requested an internal investigation of the “reported allegations of heavy use of alcohol by astronauts in the immediate pre-(space) flight period.”   That internal investigation was unable to verify the accounts, with Mr. O’Connor – who conducted the investigation – adding the caveat that “I cannot say such events have never happened; I just was unable to verify that they did happen.”

In his testimony at today’s hearing, Col. Bachmann stated that, “we understand the outrage that some members of NASA have expressed at [the alcohol findings in the July report]. The fact remains that the incidents described in the report that have generated so much concern and anger were told to the committee voluntarily by NASA personnel who were eyewitnesses to the incidents. NASA must ensure that people can identify such safety and human performance concerns within NASA without fear of reprisal or career injury. Public statements that such things are simply impossible, challenging the veracity of these findings rather than acknowledging how difficult raising such concerns can be, do not encourage openness and safety.”

Subcommittee Members urged NASA to vigorously address the concerns raised by the independent review – not just the alcohol-related ones – saying that failure to do so runs the risk of unintentionally worsening a communications environment at the agency in which, to quote the independent review committee:  “Peers and staff fear ostracism if they identify their own or other’s problems.”

For further information on the hearing – or to access witness testimony – please visit the Committee’s website at www.house.gov/science.

SpaceRef staff editor.