America's space agency was shaken Thursday by two startling and unrelated reports: One involved claims that astronauts were drunk before flying. The other was news from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration itself that a worker had sabotaged a computer set for delivery to the international space station.
It was just another jolt for an operation that has had a rocky year from the start, beginning with the arrest of an astronaut accused of attacking a rival in a love triangle. "It's going to shake up the world, I'll tell you that," retired NASA executive Seymour Himmel said of the latest news. "There will be congressional hearings that you will not be able to avoid."
News of the two latest bombshells broke within just a few hours of each other Thursday afternoon.
Aviation Week & Space Technology reported on its Web site that a special panel studying astronaut health found that on two occasions, astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so drunk they posed a safety risk.
A NASA official confirmed the report contains such details, but said they were from anonymous interviews and not substantiated. The official asked that his name not be used because NASA will discuss the health report on Friday.
The Aviation Week story did not say how long ago the alleged incidents took place, nor did it say whether it involved pilots or other crew members.
At a news conference to discuss the upcoming space shuttle launch set for Aug. 7, NASA's space operations chief was asked repeatedly about the drunken astronaut report.
The manager, Bill Gerstenmaier, would only say that he had never seen an intoxicated astronaut before flight or been involved in any disciplinary action related to that.
But Mr. Gerstenmaier had more news. He revealed that an employee for a NASA subcontractor had cut the wires in a computer that was about to be loaded into the shuttle Endeavour for launch.
The subcontractor, which he wouldn't name, contacted NASA as soon as it learned that another computer had been damaged deliberately, Mr. Gerstenmaier said. Had the contractor not discovered the problem, NASA would have uncovered it by testing the computer before launch, Mr. Gerstenmaier said. Safety was not an issue, he added.
He refused to speculate on the worker's motive. He also wouldn't say where the sabotage occurred. He said it did not happen in Florida and had nothing to do with an ongoing strike at the Kennedy Space Center by a machinists' union.
NASA hopes to fix the computer in time for launch next month. It's intended to be installed inside the space station to collect data from strain gauges on a major outside beam, the AP reports.