Ground Control to Al-Anon

Being an astronaut can’t be easy. The hours are tough—especially when there’s no such thing as hours where you’re going—the training brutal, and then when you take one or two or eight drinks before lift off, the whole world treats you like a terrorist pit bull fighter.

It’s almost tempting to not be surprised by the recent stories concerning astronauts being drunk when boarding spacecraft over the past few years. There are very few high-pressure jobs where drinking is not seen as an acceptable sweet release from the stressful forces of their workday, and occasionally the liquid relaxation and the duties of their career are bound to cross paths. If truck drivers, airline pilots, surgeons, and (apparently) young female movie stars get tipsy on the clock, we shouldn’t be ultimately surprised when NASA’s finest fail the breathalyzer.

Society is filled with individuals who find various means to escape their lives through stimulants and/or depressants, whether it be due to a demanding career, a painful divorce, or crafting a particularly eloquent argument about how the Jews start all of the wars. The most common, and cheapest, way to do so is through alcohol, so it shouldn’t be a large shock that professionals take their bottle to lunch once in a while. Astronauts may be intelligent and relatively stable, but they are susceptible to the same addictive frailties as, say, car mechanics and former governors of Texas.

And it’s not like boarding a spacecraft and getting behind the wheel of an Elantra are the same thing. I mean, yes, yes, yes, they’re apparently navigating a billion plus dollars of taxpayers’ money, and it would be a bitch on your insurance bill after wrapping the Voyager around a maple tree, but it’s not like they are dodging pedestrians or turning on a dime in the stratosphere. There’s no concept of last call in space, either; there aren’t any cougars or double baggers to count as an occupational hazard when you can see the entire Great Wall and pink elephants all at once.

Still, being an astronaut is no easy task. It involves someone who is willing to 1) be an aircraft pilot for what appears to amount to 100,000 years; 2) be willing to be enclosed in a small pressurized plastic box for several months where your oxygen intake and temperature control are designed, implemented, and built by the fellow engineers who were passed over for a promotion by you; and 3) realize that if you eat the condensed space burrito shaped like a pellet for space lunch and you think you just might try a silent poot, everyone in Ground Control is gonna know if you miscalculate.

I think a large part of this story is the guilty pleasure we all get in knowing that someone who is supposedly infinitely smarter and infinitely better paid has the same level of self-control as the average assistant manager of the local Blockbuster. I mean, yeah, occasionally you’ll have the crazy jilted girlfriend driving around in diapers armed with pepper spray, and, I guess, you’ll run into rocket scientists whose current success ratio with manned spacecraft actually touching ground without exploding and killing all those aboard is become precariously close to the single digits, but NASA astronauts have an otherwise sober reputation as fearless heroes able to convert science and daring into lucrative senatorial careers.

And c’mon. You think all those cosmonauts were sober as judges when they climbed on board the Russkie Space Special? Hell, the only thing that sobers up a Soviet is being sent to the front. Plus, their alphabet is already backwards, so there are few effective sobriety tests available for them. And they all seemed to make it back OK, although to be fair there wasn’t much of an incentive to come back.

A greater threat to the NASA program, however, are rumors of sabotage. The Linda Nowak debacle from a few months ago whipped the doors of NASA wide open, allowing us to see that astronauts were just as jealous and batshit crazy as the rest of us. And sure enough, there is evidence that computers destined for the International Space Station were tampered with by a subcontractor. There hasn’t been any details released about this yet, so one can only guess. My guesses will be that it involves, at the very least, disgruntled Air Force pilots, South Asian hackers, or the French.

Of course, all this bad news comes just as NASA was planning for another launch, this time to Mars. It was business as usual at NASA headquarters, which I can only assume involves Jell-O shots and a round of Beirut. The launch seemed to go without a hitch, though it did appear for a while there like they were going 5 mph with the headlights turned off.

Most likely, all this will blow over fairly soon. Most people realize that the actions of a half dozen astronauts aren’t necessarily an effective representation of the organization as a whole. But most astronauts now are going to have to watch themselves, since the appearance of impropriety may be an impediment to their only change to leave this world. Remember, in space, no one can take your keys.


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