Status Report

Message From the NASA Administrator – July 30, 2007: Astronaut Health Report

By SpaceRef Editor
July 30, 2007
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Message From the NASA Administrator – July 30, 2007: Astronaut Health Report

Nearly all of you will have seen the report of the review committee on astronaut medical and mental health care, officially released on Friday, 27 July. I chartered this review in the days following the unfortunate incident involving Astronaut Lisa Nowak. It was my goal to determine whether this incident might have been in any way foreseeable by those entrusted with the care of our astronauts, whether the screening and evaluation procedures we employ for astronaut selection and assignment are as good as they can possibly be, and whether the physical and mental health support systems we have in place for our astronaut corps are serving their intended purpose as well as is possible.

The review committee was comprised of numerous medical and legal professionals experienced in the various disciplines relevant to aerospace medicine and mental health, and included a former astronaut and medical doctor. The committee’s credentials are impeccable.

In reaching its conclusions, the committee interviewed numerous active and former astronauts, as well as a number of others including flight physicians, support personnel, and astronaut spouses. All interviewees were volunteers; however, not all of those who volunteered were interviewed.

You have seen the resulting report, or been exposed to some of its more sensational excerpts. It alleges instances of alcohol abuse by astronauts on active flight status. Violations of the military twelve-hour “bottle to throttle” prohibition are asserted. Finally, the report cites ineffective communication between astronauts, their medical support professionals, and their management, and similar gaps between medical professionals and NASA management. The cited allegations, taken at face value, are very serious, and all of us in management, including me, Deputy Administrator Dale, JSC Director Coats, Chief Health and Medical Officer Rich Williams, Director of Flight Crew Operations Ellen Ochoa, and Astronaut Office Chief Steve Lindsey, are taking them seriously.

The review board produced a number of recommendations which will clearly improve our organization, and we plan to implement some of them without delay.

At the same time, however, our policy has been to say very little publicly until we know more. If you saw the press conference, I am sure you realize that the report was assembled from anecdotal information, unverified by the committee and, indeed, not documented in a way that would allow us to pursue the cited incidents to closure. This does not mean that the claims made in the report are untrue, but it does necessitate a “go slow” approach on our part regarding any public statements we might make.

We have numerous upcoming tasks, both near and long-term, as a consequence of the release of the report by the committee. Former astronaut and current Chief of the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, Bryan O’Connor, has met with the commander and crew surgeon of STS-118, discussed the report and its allegations with them, and determined that none of the cited issues bear on the upcoming flight. Based on this assessment, he has given a “go” for the flight of STS-118.

In the longer term, and given the seriousness of the report’s allegations, the only responsible action we can take, and the action we will take, is to investigate the cited behaviors in an attempt to establish the firmest possible basis of fact upon which to base future decisions. In no way do I want to minimize the importance of the concerns raised by the committee’s report. However, and precisely because they are so serious, I feel compelled to insure that I will act on the basis of fact rather than assertion. Only in this way can we preserve and enhance the trust that must exist between and among our flight crews, their physicians, and NASA management.

Finally, I cannot end this note without stating to all of you my personal belief in the professional excellence and dedication to the mission, and indeed the essential goodness, of our astronaut corps. I personally began working with our flight crews more than 25 years ago, and I know many, many former and current members of the corps as valued professional colleagues and personal friends.

These are people who have accepted the risks of working on mankind’s frontier, and the years-long rigor of preparing for each flight out to that frontier. They accept risks comparable to those borne by combat troops, they do it with a smile, and when they come back, they spend hour upon hour sharing the experience with everyone from school kids to presidents. To listen to them recounting their adventures to a classroom — whether full of elementary school students or post docs — is to put one in mind of listening, if only we could, to Lewis and Clark talk of their journey to the Pacific.

These men and women are, as a group, among the very best that our nation has to offer. But they are human, with human imperfections. To improve, we must be receptive to comments and reviews by outside groups. When we receive such feedback, we must evaluate it carefully and introspectively on its merits, avoiding the tendency to focus on those aspects which receive the greatest media attention. This is not easy, but it is necessary, and that is what we will do.

Michael D. Griffin

SpaceRef staff editor.