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The world wants to know your story

 
 

 
 

Under the Influence – An Astronaut’s Confession

You want to know the real story? I’ll tell you. But this cannot go public. You understand? I mean it, reputations are at stake. Mine’s already down the toilet. It wasn’t fair, but I won’t bring anyone down with me. Here’s the real story.

We all drank a little the day before. But it was mild, celebratory. Astronauts have held preflight barbeques for decades. It’s tradition. There is alcohol involved, sure, but mostly just beer. The tradition calls for hot dogs and beer and a day of enjoyment with fellow astronauts and their families. Then thirty minutes before the 12-hour “bottle to throttle” deadline, a whiskey toast is customary. It’s a mere clink of glasses and a one-ounce shot. Most of the guys don’t even drink the whole thing. Since I’m a rookie, I’ve only been invited to one preflight barbeque before this. But this time I was part of the crew. I had finally been chosen to go up.

A few non-crew members were invited. Wendy Cornaire was there. She’d been in the business for ten years, five years longer than I had. She wanted to go up badly, but her reasons were unconventional. Most of us just want to touch the stars, expand to places few had ever been. Cornaire wasn’t interested in stars or the wonders of space. She had an entirely different perspective. She wanted to go up because she felt it was a right that was owed to her, not for her skills or expertise, but because she was a woman. Cornaire wanted to go up as a representative of her gender, not her country.

“Women need recorded accomplishments equal to those of men,” she’d say. “My job is to get another woman into space. Another woman can try for president, and so on. Soon the world will have as many great women scientists, engineers, and corporate executives as they have men.”

But Cornaire wasn’t chosen this time, and she was clearly bitter about it. The bitterness made an increased appearance as the night of the barbeque wore on. She went through beer like it was juice and then made for the whiskey bottle, which had been set aside for the 8:30 celebration. By 8:15 she’d finished half the bottle. We weren’t overly concerned. After all, Cornaire wasn’t on the crew so technically the 12 hour rule didn’t apply to her.

Things got out of hand shortly after the clink of whisky glasses. While most of us, even non-crew members, stopped drinking altogether at this point, Cornaire chugged her ounce of whiskey in one swallow and held her glass out for more. A few of the men laughed at her boldness. Rolton refilled her glass maybe a half an inch. She raised her eyebrows and jerked her glass at him. We laughed again and he filled her glass to the rim. Perhaps that was a mistake. She was already more tipsy than was natural and you could see her self control trying to escape, like an animal caged up for a very long time.

Cornaire downed the second glass of whiskey as we all watched, dumbfounded. You’ve got to know Cornaire to understand. She was post military serious, tight-bunned and not a lick of humor in her. Now here she stood, swaying and red-eyed, hair loose and sweaty. The glass in her hand smashed to the floor. Our wives gasped in shock and anger, but did nothing. Over the years, they had learned to accept the unusual…or the unthinkable. Cornaire leaned forward and wrenched the whisky bottle from Rolton’s hand, tilting her head back to tip the contents into her mouth. Rolton took the bottle from her. Cornaire’s head snapped upright, and she spit the full mouthful of whisky into his face. Rolton calmly mopped his face with a napkin and held out his arm to stop his wife from charging at Cornaire.

“You think you’re better than me?” Cornaire screamed, stepping back and waving her arms to point at me and the guys. “All standing around with those pompous looks on your faces! You’re nothing! I am the best engineer, the most intelligent astronaut! You are only going up because you are men, nothing more! Just like monkeys, you’re dispensable! Stupid apes, you are. All of you! Like the apes that decided to send you up. Useless apes!”

After many long minutes of no one moving, no one speaking, Cornaire backed away from us all and climbed up onto the picnic table. Her scowl transformed into an absurdly seductive grin as she started to unbutton her blouse.

“You see,” she said, still smiling weirdly. “This is all that I am good for. A mere woman to serve her manly apes.”

Someone – maybe the neighbors, maybe one of our wives – must have called the police. We saw the flashing lights speed toward us. Rolton handed me the whiskey bottle and scooped Cornaire from the table. He punted her into the house with his wife and my wife running behind them. As disgusted as everyone was by Cornaire’s behavior, we all understood that police meant media and media meant publicity. Bad publicity could end our careers. Even Cornaire didn’t deserve that.

The press and police arrived at the same time. We convinced everyone that everything was fine, that we were just excited about our morning launch and maybe hooted a little too loudly. We apologized for the disturbance and everyone walked away laughing. All was well.

At least that’s what we thought. The next morning, however, the launch was delayed while flight surgeons tested the blood alcohol level of the entire crew. Understand that these tests were taken long before our 12 hours was up. So even if alcohol was found, it shouldn’t have counted. There was an interrogation. There was a panel, many questions, and lots of judgment. None of us mentioned Cornaire.

Two hours before the launch, I was given the news. I was grounded. I tried to protest, but was silenced by a photograph slapped onto the table before me. It was a press photo of me and the guys talking to police the night before. At first glance, it seemed innocent enough. Everyone looked calm and some were even smiling. I scanned the picture more closely, until I finally understood. The photo showed me holding the open whiskey bottle that Rolton had handed me just before he swept Cornaire from view.

“We have strict rules regarding these things,” the flight director told me. “When incidents like this meet the public eye, those rules become even stricter. You are an icon to this country. And this --” he waved a finger at the photo, “is not what we represent. I’m sorry.” And he was. I believe that. With simple blood tests, he could have waved it all away as rumor. A photograph required action. They needed a scapegoat. I was the rookie. You do the math.

I was ordered to brief my replacement before the launch. I sat in a small conference room, head spinning from disbelief, throat lumped with disappointment. The door opened and my replacement walked in, suited up and ready for flight.

“So you’re finally going up,” I said. “Congratulations. Representative of womankind. Next, you’ll be president.”

Cornaire didn’t smile. She held her clipboard and pen in a businesslike manner, hair in a tight bun, not a lick of humor in her.

And that’s what really happened. I’m sure you know the rest.


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