Astronaut's strange trip ends with charges

Many wonder what led her to such a bizarre meltdown.

Published February 6, 2007

Less than a year after orbiting Earth, Lisa Nowak became known Tuesday as the astronaut who took a wild cross-country trip that ended with a charge of attempted murder.

And everyone was left to wonder how such an accomplished woman landed in such a bizarre situation.
Nowak, 43, is accused of trying to kidnap a romantic rival for the affections of a space shuttle pilot. She was released from jail Tuesday evening after posting $25,000 bail.

As details of the story emerged, neighbors, colleagues and former astronauts could only speculate about why the mother of three with a promising career as a robotics specialist had such a strange — and public — meltdown.

“You don’t even expect that sort of behavior out of the general population. And certainly not from a member of the astronaut program,” said former astronaut Norman Thagard, a dean at FSU/FAMU College of Engineering.

Nowak, who was a mission specialist on a space shuttle Discovery flight last summer, was charged Monday with attempted kidnapping, attempted vehicle burglary with battery, destruction of evidence and battery.

Police said Nowak drove from Houston to Orlando, donned a disguise, armed herself with a BB gun and pepper spray, and met the flight of the woman she considered a competitor for the affections of Navy Cmdr. William Oefelein, an unmarried fellow astronaut.

Nowak told police she wore diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop during her 12-hour journey.

Oefelein, 41, piloted Discovery in December. He and Nowak trained together but never flew on the same mission.
Her family issued a statement after her arrest saying Nowak recently separated from her husband of 19 years.

On Tuesday morning, Orange County Judge Mike Murphy said Nowak could be freed on $15,500 bail if she stayed away from the other woman and wore a GPS monitoring device. But the judge upped the bail after prosecutors filed attempted murder charges.

If convicted of attempted murder, Nowak faces between 30 years and life in prison.

Her NASA commander, Steve Lindsey, and fellow astronaut Chris Ferguson, both appeared on her behalf in court.
“Our primary concern is her health and well-being and that she get through this,” Lindsey told reporters later.

Nowak told police that her relationship with Oefelein was “more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship,” according to an arrest affidavit.

Inside her vehicle, which was parked at a nearby motel, authorities found a pepper spray package, an unused BB-gun cartridge, latex gloves and e-mails between Oefelein and the other woman, Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman.

They also found a letter “that indicated how much Mrs. Nowak loved Mr. Oefelein” and Shipman’s home address, the arrest affidavit said.

According to the arrest affidavit, Nowak believed Shipman was romantically involved with Oefelein, and when she found out Shipman was flying from Houston to Orlando, she decided to confront her early Monday.

Dressed in a wig and trench coat, she waited for Shipman’s plane to land, then boarded the same airport shuttle Shipman took to get to her car, police said.

Nowak rapped on Shipman’s window, tried to open the car door and asked for a ride. When Shipman rolled down the window, Nowak sprayed a chemical into the car, the affidavit said. Shipman drove to the parking lot booth and called police.

Nowak’s Orlando attorney, Donald Lykkebak, said his client never intended to kidnap or harm Shipman, who is an engineer at Patrick Air Force Base at the Kennedy Space Center.

But in the affidavit charging Nowak with attempted first-degree murder, police disagreed. “The fact that Mrs. Nowak drove 900 miles, urinated in diapers so that she did not need to stop, stayed at a hotel where she paid cash and used a false name and address to register … create well-founded fear and give this investigator probable cause to believe that Mrs. Nowak intended to murder Mrs. Shipman,” the report said.

In a petition for a restraining order filed Monday, Shipman said Nowak had stalked her for two months.

Lynnette Madison, a spokewoman for the Johnson Space Center, said Nowak’s status as an astronaut was unchanged Tuesday evening.

“This is a private matter for her,” Madison said. “We are very concerned and very perplexed by the entire situation.”

Madison said it was the only felony charge filed against an astronaut in recent memory.

Thagard, who joined the space program in 1978, said most astronauts avoid bad publicity for fear of jeopardizing their chances at space flight.

The weird story and Novak’s disheveled look in her police mug shot caused some to speculate about her mental health.

Dr. Patricia Santy, a former NASA flight surgeon who writes a Web log, blamed Nowak’s behavior on the space program’s glorification of astronauts.

“If you treat astronauts like Hollywood superstars; promote them to the public as if they were God’s gift to humanity … it is not too hard to predict that they will behave just like any other entitled superstar whose ridiculous exploits the public follows with obsessive interest,” Santy wrote.

But Thomas Oltmanns, a professor of psychology at Washington University of St. Louis and a member of NASA’s Astronaut Selection Psychiatric Standards Working Group, said the incident merely proves that astronauts are human.

“This is one of those things that no one could predict would happen,” Oltmanns said. “I feel terrible for her and for her family.”

Times staff researcher John Martin and staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press and the Orlando Sentinel.