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Wisconsin astronaut skeptical of drinking claims

After returning from his final six-month space mission last summer onboard the International Space Station, Colonel Jeffrey Williams is surprised to hear news of scandal plaguing NASA.

The Wisconsin astronaut finds the allegations of pre-flight heavy drinking hard to believe.

"Many of us are scratching our heads about this because it's so foreign to what we see," said Williams, who was born in Superior and considers Winter his home.

He appeared at the DECC Friday as a speaker for the International Lutheran Laymen's League Conference.

"Obviously, it's difficult for us to come out now and respond because if there is something there people would just suspect that we're covering something up. But, I've got to tell you there's nothing I've ever seen to cover up."

The findings of the independent panel's report didn't make sense to Williams. He said astronauts are held in quarantine a week before a launch.

"We are a pretty close-knit community in that we all know each other. We all live in the same community or same general area together at Johnson Space Center," he said. "There are people around all the time when a crew's in quarantine. There are other astronauts that support the launch countdown. For example, they get the cockpit ready. They help the crew strap in. They help take care of the families. There's management around all the time -- close by."

William wonders if there may be a misunderstanding. Two astronauts flying drunk is something that he believes might have occurred in the past, during the infancy of NASA.

"One of the questions we asked," Williams said, "'Could this report be referring to contemporary times in recent years or is it old times?' You know, back in the old nostalgic days, where there are all kind of legends. Of course, legends sometimes become bigger than real life too over time."

Williams acknowledged that the report's findings are a blemish on the space administration's image. Yet, he doesn't believe that the current uproar will prompt a reduction in financial aid to space programs.

"Funding is always a challenge in all walks of government. Whether this will have an impact on funding, I would venture a guess that it probably won't," Williams surmised. "The funding cycle takes a lot longer than a story like this. Hopefully, this story will come and go in short order."

He's not sure if he believes the independent panel's findings, but if the report proves true, he said NASA will take responsibility.

"It is important that the folks at NASA and the agency does the things that the people of this country, our citizens, call for. We have a mission, and I believe from my observation before I was with NASA as well as my many years with NASA, the agency as a whole does a very good job at fulfilling that mission. It's full of dedicated do space exploration, science, aeronautics and all the other things that we do."

He hopes the controversy will not distract the space agency from conducting missions.

"In the meantime, we'll keep our eye on the ball and continue to send people to the space station, continue the assembly and do it safely," Williams said.