The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Michael Griffin testifying before the House Science and Technology Committee last week. (credit: House Science and Technology Cmte.)

Astronauts and the futile quest for perfection

“They’re not perfect and I’m not perfect either.”
– Mike Griffin, September 6, 2007

It was a frustrating and inconclusive congressional hearing. In spite of much bipartisan good will and a lack of any sensational disclosures, the “Drunk Astronaut” hearing ended with no one any closer to the truth than when it began. The basics of the story are well known: after the Lisa Nowak fiasco in February of this year, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin put together an independent Astronaut Health Care System Review Committee whose goal was, according to its chairman, Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann Jr., “To provide opinions as to what, if any, procedures or testing could be put in place to predict disordered conduct or acts of passion.”

In any organization there are going to people who are not happy with the status quo. Given the chance, with a promise that their identity will be protected, they may want to strike out at their colleagues and at their employers.

When their report was released at the end of July it set off a firestorm of negative publicity for NASA involving the allegations that, on at least two occasions, “NASA astronaut and medical personnel described two specific instances of alcohol use to the committee as examples of a much larger issue: that NASA personnel felt that human factors concerns with significant safety implications had been disregarded when raised to local on-scene leadership.” One of these incidents involved a T-38 training flight and the other involved a flight with the Russians on Soyuz. These allegations were made anonymously and no pressure was put on Col. Bachmann, either by NASA or by members of Congress, to break that promise.

Given the damage that this story did, Griffin ordered NASA’s Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance, Bryan O’Connor, to conduct his own investigation of the story. He found no evidence whatsoever that the stories were true. “Of the more than 90 individuals who answered my call for information, not one offered any evidence of alcohol use or abuse in the immediate preflight timeframe: Shuttle, Soyuz, or T-38, and none revealed any cases where management disregarded flight surgeon or crew concerns about crew alcohol and spaceflight.”

So the story remains at best unproven and for many reasons there are serious doubts that there was ever any substance to the study. While most of the questions quite properly revolved around the question “Does NASA’s management system allow for full and honest debate on all safety and technical issues?” the real question raised by a Congressman involved “malcontents”.

In any organization there are going to people who are not happy with the status quo. Given the chance, with a promise that their identity will be protected, they may want to strike out at their colleagues and at their employers. They may even believe that they are doing this for the good of the organization. In the early 1990s in the wake of the Navy’s “Tailhook” scandal, the US military was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of anonymous allegations of sexual improprieties. Many, if not most, of these accusations turned out to be false, but they did enormous damage.

Both the Bachmann and the O’Connor reports were written by men who’ve proved themselves to have the highest levels of integrity and professionalism. No Congressman even came close to questioning their motives. Bachmann is an elite Air Force medical officer who was Commander of the USAF’s School of Aerospace Medicine until recently (he is now the Special Assistant to the commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, with the new commander of the aerospace medicine school working for him); O’Connor is a former astronaut who holds one of the most important and difficult jobs at NASA and has earned the full trust of that organization’s highest leadership. The contradictions between their respective investigations may be due to either the fact that the Bachmann report promised anonymity or due to the limited scope of the O’Connor report, which was limited to examining the use of alcohol on the day the of flight.

The solutions that NASA has offered to try and resolve this problem, “a systematic, comprehensive and anonymous survey” designed to detect any problems that may exist between NASA’s astronauts and flight surgeons and the development of an “Astronaut Code of Conduct” may simply make matters worse. The survey will give anyone with a gripe a chance to elaborate on it and, by possibly leaking their complaints to the media, to keep this circus going for a few more news cycles. It forces management to waste even more of its time chasing ghosts and trying to prove a negative.

Promulgating an “Astronaut Code of Conduct” is an even worse solution. The astronaut corps generally consists of some of the most highly qualified and dedicated people in America. They have been trained and tested, and the idea that they need a code to tell them how to behave is ridiculous. Worse, the quasi-legal status that such a code would have will lead to a nearly infinite number of elaborations and interpretations that astronauts would have to cope with on top of their training and mission preparation. If they do need a code of conduct, NASA should keep it simple. Three simple words should be enough: “Be a Mensch!”

To demand utterly and completely perfect behavior from any group of people is to demand that they cease to be human.

This situation is the direct result of the Lisa Nowak incident and indirectly from the questions about NASA’s culture that were raised by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report issued in August 2003. The board found that “Management did not listen to what their engineers were telling them. Instead, rules and procedures took priority.” Both O’Keefe and Griffin took these findings to heart and bent over backwards to ensure that NASA employees have multiple channels through which to make complaints and recommendations. At the hearing Griffin emphasized that management “must not fail to listen respectfully,” but he also pointed out that the results will not always be those that a whistleblower expects.

The greatest cultural problem at NASA is one that neither Griffin nor anyone else in the agency’s leadership can do anything about. For years the public image of America’s woman astronauts was that of Sally Ride, or sometimes Christa McAuliffe, heroines who combined brains and guts and were opening up the space frontier for all Americans and for humanity as a whole. In one crazy weekend Lisa Nowak destroyed that public image and replaced it with one involving female stereotypes that most modern women find degrading.

This in turn has opened the way for a few “touchy-feely” types to make a claim for more power and influence within the human space program. The program has enough problems as is, and any additional demands will end up taking the focus away from the engineering and scientific problem solving that lay at the heart of what NASA is all about.

NASA and Congress need to firmly put this whole media-driven fiasco behind them and get on with the mission. Space exploration is a hard job that demands performance as close to absolute perfection as human beings are capable of, but as Mike Griffin pointed out, nobody is perfect, and to demand utterly and completely perfect behavior from any group of people is to demand that they cease to be human.