NASA probes sabotage; report says pilots flew drunk

Damage to noncritical computer is "intentional," agency says. Separately, NASA says no comment on report astronauts flew while intoxicated.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor
NASA is investigating sabotage of a noncritical computer due to be flown to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, which was cleared to lift off on August 7, the U.S. space agency said Thursday.

NASA revealed the sabotage a day ahead of releasing a report--first revealed by the publication Aviation Week--that found astronauts were allowed to fly on at least two occasions despite warnings they were so drunk they posed a flight risk.

The damage to wiring in an electronics box was intentional and obvious, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, told reporters at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA found cut cables inside the electronics box, which was being prepared to be loaded into Endeavour's crew cabin for transport to the $100 billion space station.

NASA was told of the sabotage by a subcontractor, which Gerstenmaier declined to identify, citing an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General.

"It was disclosed to us as soon as the event occurred, about a week and a half ago," Gerstenmaier said. "The damage is very obvious, easy to detect. It's not a mystery to us."

NASA managers believe there is ample time to repair the computer before Endeavour's liftoff on August 7. The shuttle is scheduled to spend up to 10 days at the space station to install a new structural beam and deliver supplies.

Could fly without it
The computer, which is to be located in the U.S. laboratory Destiny, is designed to collect and relay data from sensors on the station's external trusses. The sensors detect vibrations and forces, such as micrometeoroid impacts. Currently, the data is stored in the sensors and not immediately accessible.

"If we don't get it repaired in time, we'll fly without it," said NASA spokesman Kyle Herring. "It's not an issue."

The same manufacturer also builds gauges for the shuttle's wings and other station computer components, Gerstenmaier said. No other damage was detected.

The damage is believed to be the first act of sabotage of flight equipment NASA has discovered, Gerstenmaier and shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.

The NASA officials declined to discuss Aviation Week's report that a panel had found that astronauts were allowed to fly drunk at least twice, despite objections from colleagues and flight surgeons.

The publication said the panel, set up by NASA to study astronaut health issues after the arrest in February of former astronaut Lisa Nowak on assault charges, also reported "heavy use of alcohol" by astronauts within 12 hours of launch, which is against NASA rules.

A spokeswoman at Johnson Space Center, where the astronaut corps is based, would not comment but the space agency said it would release the findings of "two reviews regarding astronaut medical and behavioral health assessments" at a news conference on Friday in Washington.

Endeavour, fresh from a complete overhaul and the last of NASA's three remaining shuttles to return to flight following the 2003 Columbia disaster, is due to carry out a construction mission to the space station.

It will be NASA's second shuttle flight of the year.

Endeavour was almost totally rebuilt during its overhaul and was like a new space shuttle, Hale said.

"It's like driving a new car off the showroom floor," he said.

Endeavour's seven crew members include teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, who trained 22 years ago as the backup to teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe, one of the astronauts who died when Challenger blew up at liftoff in January 1986.

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