WASHINGTON -- Someone's gotta do it. No one's gonna do it. So I'll do it. Your Honor, I rise in defense of drunken astronauts.
You've all heard the reports, delivered in scandalized tones on the evening news or as guaranteed punch lines for the late-night comics, that at least two astronauts had alcohol in their systems before flights. A stern and sober NASA has assured an anxious nation that this matter, uncovered by a NASA-commissioned study, will be thoroughly looked into and appropriately dealt with.
To which I say: Come off it. I know NASA has to get grim and do the responsible thing, but as counsel for the defense -- the only counsel for the defense, as far as I can tell -- I place before the jury the following considerations:
Have you ever been to the shuttle launch pad? Have you ever seen that beautiful and preposterous thing the astronauts ride? Imagine it's you sitting on top of a 12-story winged tube bolted to a gigantic canister filled with 2 million liters of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Then picture your own buddies -- the "closeout crew" -- who met you at the pad, fastened your emergency chute, strapped you into your launch seat, sealed the hatch and waved smiling to you through the window. Having left you lashed to what is the largest bomb on planet Earth, they then proceed 200 feet down the elevator and drive not one, not two, but three miles away to watch as the button is pressed that lights the candle that ignites the fuel that blows you into space.
Three miles! That's how far they calculate they must be to be beyond the radius of incineration should anything go awry on the launch pad on which, I remind you, these insanely brave people are sitting. Would you not want to be a bit soused? Would you be all aflutter if you discovered that a couple of astronauts -- out of dozens -- were mildly so? I dare say that if the standards of today's fussy flight surgeons had been applied to pilots showing up for morning duty in the Battle of Britain, the signs in Piccadilly would today be in German.
Cut these cowboys some slack. These are not wobbly Northwest Airlines pilots trying to get off the runway and steer through clouds and densely occupied airspace. An ascending space shuttle, I assure you, encounters very little traffic. And for much of liftoff, the astronaut is little more than spam in a can -- not pilot but guinea pig. With opposable thumbs, to be sure, yet with only one specific task: to come out alive.
And by the time the astronauts get to the part of the journey that requires delicate and skillful maneuvering -- docking with the international space station, outdoor plumbing repairs in Zero G -- they will long ago have peed the demon rum into their recycling units.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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