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NASA shaken by 2 unrelated reports

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — 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 NASA 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.

The independent panel also found "heavy use of alcohol" before launch, the magazine reported, although that drinking was within the standard 12-hour "bottle-to-throttle" rule.

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 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 1 1/2 weeks ago, as soon as it learned that another computer had been damaged deliberately, Gerstenmaier said. Had the contractor not discovered the problem, NASA would have uncovered it by testing the computer before launch, 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.

Former shuttle commander Eileen Collins was as stunned as anyone to learn of the astronaut alcohol claims in the upcoming health report.

"I'm anxious to hear more details because this is very out of character from anything I have ever experienced," she said.

Collins worries this will hurt the image of the astronauts, at least in the short term. "I hope people can really look at the good things astronauts do," she said.

Astronaut Jeffrey Williams, who spent six months on the space station last year, said he's never seen or heard of anything like this. As for the effect this may have on astronaut morale, especially so close to a shuttle flight, he said, "We're trained to deal with things so we deal with them without much emotion."

Himmel, who retired in 1981 as associate director for what is now Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, wasn't surprised to learn the information was anonymous.

"Let's face it. Astronauts are a bunch of brothers and sisters, OK, and they'll cover each other's backsides because they're part of the team," he said. "And who knows what the role of the particular ones was to be. If he was just to sit in the middle seat somewhere and just be a passenger, you kind of say, 'Well, gee, I hope he doesn't vomit on the way up."'

The independent panel reviewing astronaut health and NASA's psychological screening process was created following the arrest in February of former space shuttle flier Lisa Nowak. None of the panel members returned phone calls or e-mails from The Associated Press.

Nowak is accused of attacking the girlfriend of a fellow astronaut — her romantic rival — with pepper spray in a parking lot at Orlando International Airport. Fired by NASA in March, she has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping, battery and burglary with assault.

The scandal was followed by a freak hailstorm that tore into a space shuttle on the launch pad that set back the year's flight schedule. Then there was a shooting at Johnson Space Center in Houston by an employee who ultimately killed himself.

Himmel questions whether any screening or rules could weed out astronauts like Nowak. "I have personal friends who are psychiatrists and they say, 'Look, we don't know what the hell goes on and you can't really evaluate somebody overnight,"' he said.

As for astronauts who might overindulge before flight, if they're former fighter or test pilots, "it's a pretty hard-living bunch and it's a very emotionally intense thing," Himmel said. He said an old NASA colleague who worked closely with test pilots once told him, "Some of these guys are damn near on a razor's edge when they fly and in their home lives.

"The thing is that no matter how hard anybody tries, or no matter what system you devise to preclude something, there's always somebody who will find a way to louse it up," Himmel said. "There's no perfect system."

Associated Press reporter Rasha Madkour in Miami contributed to this report.

On the Net: NASA: www.nasa.gov