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NASA has a plan for mental break in space

February 24, 2007|From the Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. — What would happen if an astronaut came unglued in space and, say, destroyed the ship's oxygen system or tried to open the hatch and kill everyone aboard?

That was the question on some minds after Lisa Marie Nowak was arrested in Orlando, Fla., this month on charges that she tried to kidnap and kill a woman she regarded as her rival for another astronaut's affections.

It turns out NASA has a detailed set of written procedures for dealing with a suicidal or psychotic astronaut in space. The documents, obtained this week by the Associated Press, say crewmates should bind the astronaut's wrists and ankles with duct tape, use a bungee cord as a restraint and inject tranquilizers if necessary.

"Talk with the patient while you are restraining him," the instructions say. "Explain what you are doing, and that you are using a restraint to ensure that he is safe."

The instructions do not spell out what happens after that. But NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said that the space agency, a flight surgeon on the ground and the commander in space would decide whether to abort the flight, in the case of the shuttle, or send the unhinged astronaut home, if the episode took place on the International Space Station.

The crew might have to rely in large part on brute strength to subdue an out-of-control astronaut, because there are no weapons on the space station or the shuttle. A gun would be out of the question; a bullet could pierce a spaceship and kill everyone. There are no stun guns either.

"NASA has determined that there is no need for weapons at the space station," Hartsfield said.

NASA and its Russian counterpart drew up the checklist for the space station in 2001. Hartsfield said NASA had a nearly identical set of procedures for the shuttle, but he would not provide a copy Friday, saying its release had not been cleared by the space agency's lawyers.

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