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Cocaine discovery prompts investigation by NASA

About 200 shuttle workers are tested after drug residue is found at the Florida base.

January 17, 2010|By Robert Block

Reporting from Kennedy Space Center, Fla. — The people who work on the space shuttle don't fly on the orbiters they maintain -- but it appears at least one of them may have been getting high.

A shuttle worker employed by United Space Alliance found a plastic bag with a white powder residue -- later confirmed to be cocaine -- in a shuttle processing hangar at Kennedy Space Center last week.

The worker gave it to NASA security, and about 200 workers were given drug tests.

There was no indication that any of the workers were impaired, NASA said.

Space center spokeswoman Lisa Malone said the substance was found on the floor outside two bathrooms and a janitor's closet, in an area where workers have to swipe their identification cards, so NASA knows who was in Orbital Processing Facility 3.

Drug-sniffing dogs, which were immediately called in to check out the employees, found nothing, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said.

Beutel said that if the drug can be tied to anyone, the employee will be handed over to federal prosecutors.

"We do not tolerate the use of illegal substances for people who work on the orbiter," Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center, told reporters.

The shuttle Discovery is being prepared there for a March launch to the International Space Station.

In addition to the drug tests, NASA engineers are double-checking the work on the orbiter.

Malone said the amount discovered in the plastic bag was small. "I understand it was residue," she said.

Beutel said that shuttle workers are trained to report anybody during a shift who seems impaired for any reason -- whether they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol or just too tired.

"Workers know that there is no margin for error in what they do," he said.

He said if a suspect or suspects are identified, it is possible to trace an individual's work to make sure it was done properly.

"Work can be traced for any reason. It's pretty standard," Beutel said. "We will be able to discover before Discovery's March mission if there were any irregularities."

rblock@orlandosentinel.com

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