Rifling Through NASA’s Closets

USA Today finds nothing, publishes anyway

Scandal is such a dangerous thing in the media. Readers devour it and always ask for more. When astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested in February and charged with attempted kidnapping, the press went wild with stories about an unstable NASA love triangle.

In response, the space agency commissioned a report on the psychiatric and health conditions of its flight crews. That report, which uncovered two incidences of astronauts’ flying while intoxicated, set off a flurry of articles about a history of “heavy” alcohol use by NASA astronauts.

I didn’t write anything about the buzz because most of it seemed important, relevant, and balanced. But an article in USA Today pushed me over the edge. Headlined, “Astronauts’ manners can get lost in space,” the story seems to pose a reasonable question: if there are problems with NASA flight crews’ behavior on the ground, what happens when they’re floating in a tin can, far above the world?

Unfortunately, the article comes off as a very weak attempt to stir up more scandal. Reporter Marilyn Elias digs up a couple of pointless anecdotes and quotes about communications barriers between astronauts of different nationalities. There’s really nothing that makes the International Space Station look much different from any office in Manhattan.

“Still, the worst conflicts in space tend to be about personality rather than culture,” Elias writes in the last paragraph. Okay, but if that is so, why is this seemingly integral point at the bottom of the story? Perhaps because there’s nothing to back it up.

In the remainder of the last paragraph, Elias writes, “Next year, an American woman will fly with Russians again.” Then she quotes a NASA psychologist saying, “She’ll tell us if there are any problems.”

Perhaps it was not Elias’ intention, but her article sounds like she was simply fishing for some kind of cosmic lechery. The last woman to fly with two Russian men, Elias reports, was told not to “touch anything” while the two men went out on a space walk. That’s it. That’s the anecdote.

It would be more interesting, I suppose, if the Russians with whom the next woman will fly had a history of misogyny. But Elias provides no evidence of that, and so her article is entirely speculative. Her instincts (and I would guess her intentions as well) were sound in exploring astronaut relationships in space. It’s possible that there is more to this story, but this article, buttressed by the thinnest of reeds, should not have run.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.