Lisa Marie Nowak, a 43-year-old astronaut and married mother of 3, drove nearly a thousand miles from Texas to Florida to meet the 1 a.m. flight of a woman she apparently viewed as a romantic rival.
After Nowak arrived in Orlando, things got weird.
The former mission specialist wore a trench coat and wig. Also found in Nowak’s possession were a knife, BB gun, and rubber gloves. Nowak reportedly told police that the adult diapers they found in her vehicle were there so she could drive the 12+ hours to Florida without stopping to go to the restroom. She’d applied her training as an astronaut, since shuttle crews wear adult diapers on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.
Tonight Lisa Marie Nowak sits in a jail cell in Orange County, Florida. She faces multiple charges, among them are attempted kidnapping and battery. The crew member from a Space Shuttle Discovery flight made in the summer of 2006 is being held without bail.
It was the middle of the night when U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman finally got her luggage and was able to leave Orlando National Airport. As Shipman headed for her car she realized she was being followed by a woman in a trench coat.
Police reports indicated that as Shipman reached her car in long-term parking she heard someone running. It was the stranger in the trench coat. The woman tried to open Shipman’s car door, then she asked if she could use Shipman’s cell.
Colleen Shipman told the woman that if she really needed help, she would call someone for her. The woman said she couldn’t hear, and appeared upset.
Shipman rolled down her window, and that’s when the “chemical spray” came into play — in Ms. Shipman’s face.
Colleen Shipman then managed to get away and alert the authorities.
In short order it was determined that the woman in the trench coat was Lisa Marie Nowak, and the problem here was another NASA astronaut named Bill Oefelein.
Lisa Nowak told cops that she had a relationship with Oefelein that was “more than a working relationship,” but it wasn’t a romantic relationship, either. Even so, when Nowak found out Oefelein and Colleen Shipman were somehow involved, she apparently decided she needed to go straight to Orlando from her home in Houston to “talk” with Ms. Shipman about that relationship.
In addition to the items like the knife and BB gun, cops later found a steel mallet, rubber tubing, and directions to Shipman’s home — all in Nowak’s car parked at a nearby La Quinta Inn.
Nowak told the cops she didn’t want to harm the other woman, just frighten her into talking about her relationship with Bill Oefelein. The police believe otherwise.
We don’t romanticize astronauts the way we did in the heyday of the Apollo missions to the moon, but to some degree, they are still revered. And much has always been made of how difficult it is to become an astronaut. There are physical hardships to be endured, and mental, emotional stresses aplenty.
That this is perhaps the first time an astronaut has ever faced felony charges is probably testimony to how well NASA has weeded troubled people out of their astronaut training programs over the years.
For some people, it takes one thing to catalyze a certain kind of madness. People who have functioned at a high level all their lives — and Lisa Nowak most certainly was one of those
— need only the wrong combination of nascent emotional problems and trigger events, and all may be lost. Something looks like love to them, and anything resembling sense simply vanishes.
In January, 2004, Lisa Nowak and Bill Oefelein participated in winter environmental training in in Quebec
. With astronauts from the Canadian, European, and Russian Space Agencies, Nowak, Oefelein and another NASA astronaut, Dominic Antonelli, underwent training usually reserved for Canadian soldiers.
The goal was to focus on leadership and teamwork if any of the astronauts were ever assigned to the international space station. According to the Canadian Army website linked above, “the training was designed to test their physical, mental and psychological strength in a harsh environment and prepare them for a stint of four to six months aboard the international space station.”
Did a relationship — at least in Lisa Nowak’s mind — begin that January?
Often when I read about a crime in the news and there is some mention of bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depression), I shake my head because it is obvious that bipolar disorder has little to do with the crime in question. This is particularly true sometimes if the crime is violent. I am familiar with the vagaries of manic-depression because of my late brother, who struggled with it for most of his life. Being a performing artist helps, too, since manic-depressives are a dime a dozen in the performing arts.
There’s been no mention of Lisa Nowak having any mental illness in this story, and there may never be one, but when I saw her haggard face in a mugshot and compared that to the attractive, all-American astronaut seen here
, I had to wonder. I had to wonder if there was some sort of hitherto unknown problem bursting out in her obsessive and frightening behavior, or if there was drug abuse.
The idea that Nowak has been an astronaut, already gone into space, mitigated against drugs, as I’d think that drug-testing would be mandatory in such a program.
Maybe all work and no play made Lisa feel like a dull girl. From Lisa Nowak’s pre-flight interview
, posted at NASA’s website in August, 2005:
You mentioned being so busy, not having time for those things. What about this job makes you willing to make the sacrifice of those personal things?
Well, you’re right, there’s not time for a lot of those and, and less time for family, of course, and this mission’s very important. All the space missions we do are very important because exploration’s important for all of us. But you’re right; it’s a sacrifice for our own personal time and our families and the people around us. But I do think it’s worth it because if you don’t explore and take risks and go do all these things then everything will stay the same. People aren’t like that. We want to explore and expand and know more about the place around us.
I added the bold emphasis in Lisa Nowak’s answer. I’ve seen it happen with people I knew, before — they become engrossed in a project with a co-worker. That project consumes more and more time and energy. The co-workers are together, and there is stress, but also a kind of thrill in the accomplishment. I saw this happen once and break up a marriage that had never before shown any signs of fracturing. The stress, whatever it was, made the two people feel more vital, alive, and the bonding seemed almost natural, at that point.
But the relationship that I observed was mutual. What no one knows yet, because he (understandably) has made no comment, is just what kind of relationship Bill Oefelein thought he had with fellow astronaut Lisa Nowak.
One thing seems sure to me now — had Colleen Shipman not kept her wits about her, something worse than a face full of pepper spray could have happened.
The arrest of Lisa Marie Nowak proves the brittle humanity of even the best and brightest among us. Astronauts, to a kid who was two when man first walked on the moon, were demi-gods. Obviously, sometimes even an astronaut can crack.
At least this time it happened on Earth. I don’t think there’s a jail cell on the international space station, yet.
UPDATE, 12:04 p.m. ET
Lisa Nowak was almost released on bail. However, at the moment, CNN is reporting that Orlando police have added an attempted first-degree murder charge that will keep the astronaut behind bars.
Wow. What a gothic, strange story.
UPDATE, 12:42 p.m. ET
In January of 2005, this website
was registered under the name Jane Caputo — Lisa Nowak’s mother. It is titled “Lisa’s Launch,” and apparently dedicated to Nowak’s then-impending mission on the space shuttle Discovery. The site is a simple affair devoted to Lisa Nowak’s role in the mission, and it would make sense if it was created by a proud parent.
The website for Lisa’s Launch, which did take place in the summer of 2006, only seems to underscore Lisa’s fall.
It’s as if Icarus
had been newly conceived, as a woman.
UPDATE, 3:53 p.m. ET
The Smoking Gun
has the police affidavit
for this case.
One of the most telling details: “Receipts found in Mrs. Nowak’s bag indicate that she paid only cash
in her travels from Houston to Orlando, including a stay at a hotel.”
Thanks to Trench
for posting this link at CrimeNews
Mainstream media sources:
“Astronaut charged with kidnap attempt
,” CBS4Denver.com/AP, February 6, 2007.
“Space shuttle astronaut arrested at OIA on attempted kidnapping, battery charges
,” The Orlando Sentinel,
February 5, 2007.