The Sciences

45. Astronauts’ Image Tarnished

By Richard MorganJan 4, 2008 6:00 AM


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Maybe someone spiked the Tang? In 2007, NASA’s astronaut corps made headlines more for sex, violence, and booze than for space exploration.

The run of bad news started in February with the arrest of astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, charged with battery, attempted burglary, attempted kidnapping, and attempted murder after an attack on a woman in an Orlando parking lot. The details soon became fodder for late-night comedians: Both women were involved with the same man (another astronaut), and Nowak, a 43-year-old married mother of three, allegedly wore an adult diaper so she could make her Houston-to-Orlando drive with fewer restroom stops.

NASA put Nowak on leave and removed her flight status and mission access. Still, at least one of her fellow astronauts was cautiously sympathetic. In September Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, said, “Astronauts are not superhuman. It is not excusable, but it is understandable for an achiever to fall into a trap.”

Nowak seemed like an isolated case until July, when an independent panel studying astronaut health reported some heavy drinking, even right before launches. As the phrase “bottle to throttle” entered the lexicon, NASA dismissed the report, which released no specifics, labeling it an “urban legend.” But the aerospace medical specialist who led the investigation said NASA’s denials would “increase the risk of future mishaps or incidents.” If he’s right, NASA could have more rough years ahead.

Go to the next story: 46. E. coli Outbreak Prompts Massive Meat Recall

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