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NASA's strange new world

Alcohol reports may point to a cultural shift.

By THOMAS LAKE, Times staff writer
Published July 28, 2007


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photo
[AP photo (1995)]
Former astronaut Hoot Gibson dismisses reports of astronauts' drunken misbehavior as hearsay.

Hoot Gibson was an astronaut, and so were his buddies. One night they all went to a bar for some drinks.

"Who wants to try a Flaming Hooker?" he asked.

The Flaming Hooker was a generous splash of high-proof alcohol, served in a brandy snifter, alight with blue fire. Gibson knocked one back and slammed the glass on the counter, flame still burning. The others tried it but burned their faces.

Gibson would eventually make chief astronaut.

This episode, which occurred nearly 30 years ago, illustrates a point that has suddenly found a news hook: Astronauts have abused alcohol for decades.

On that note, there is more than one way to interpret Friday's announcement by NASA that at least two astronauts may have shown up drunk for spaceflight.

NASA - already reeling from the Columbia crash, flagging public support and the Lisa Nowak love triangle scandal - has hit another low.

Or perhaps the revelation is a sign that NASA, eager to build support for its mission to Mars, is sweeping aside its space cowboy culture.

Mike Mullane believes the latter. He entered NASA when Gibson did, and the "Flaming Hooker" story above comes from his 2006 book, Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut. Gibson confirmed the story's veracity in an interview Friday.

Times have changed

In the epilogue, Mullane says he has been told NASA now frowns on drinking alcohol. Astronaut parties are boring. Political correctness has taken over.

"Maybe the wild and woolly Right Stuff astronaut - that astronaut who lives life at the edge of the envelope, be it at happy hour or in a cockpit - has also gone the way of the dodo," he writes.

In the days of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, astronauts were nearly deified. They were household names, heroes to children. They were the star sailors, the great explorers. They were beating the Soviets.

But times changed. Americans got bored with moon landings. The Challenger exploded. The Soviet Union fell. Astronaut applications fell from nearly 8,000 in 1977 to fewer than 3,000 in 2004. Space camps in Florida and California closed due to falling attendance and rising debt.

Critical report

Seven astronauts died on Columbia in 2003 during a flight that served little purpose, according to Robert Lee Hotz in the Los Angeles Times. They conjured up tiny flames and searched for lightning sprites and did experiments toward developing space-based perfumes.

And then, in Febuary, police said, astronaut Lisa Nowak drove from Houston to Orlando, donned a wig and trench coat, armed herself with a BB gun and pepper spray and tried to kidnap and kill a woman she saw as a romantic rival for a fellow astronaut.

In response to that incident, NASA formed a committee to evaluate health services available to astronauts. The panel delivered its report on Friday, saying that after drinking heavily, one astronaut flew on a Russian spacecraft and another was cleared for flight on a space shuttle that didn't take off.

The report was vague. It was missing names, dates and supporting evidence.

"It's a bunch of hearsay," Hoot Gibson, now 60, retired, living in Tennessee and still racing airplanes, said in a telephone interview. He said he is certain that in his 18 years with NASA, from 1978 to 1996, no one came to a flight drunk.

"I've never observed anything remotely close to it," he said. "If anyone was going to be guilty of it, it would have been me."

Nevertheless, NASA deputy administrator Shana Dale pledged to launch a full followup investigation.

"The culture of NASA is already starting to change," Dale, the agency's second-in-command, said at Friday's news conference. She wore glasses and bangs and a dark suit jacket. She is a lawyer.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report, which used information from the and the Associated Press. Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.

[Last modified July 28, 2007, 01:15:39]


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