The sudden descent of a shuttle astronaut

This article was written and reported by Times staff writers Lianne Hart, John Johnson Jr., Karen Kaplan and Alan Zarembo.

After 19 years of marriage, three children and one magnificent shuttle flight into space, NASA astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak’s life was beginning to unravel.

The Navy captain had separated from her husband a few weeks ago and, according to papers filed in court, began stalking a female Air Force officer who was dating the astronaut whom Nowak longed for.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 8, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Astronaut charged: An article in Section A on Wednesday about astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak described her and her future husband, Richard Nowak, as having been U.S. Naval Academy cadets. Those who attend the Naval Academy are called midshipmen.

On Tuesday, the high-flying trajectory of Nowak’s life veered into bizarre and sordid terrain as charges were filed against her in a Florida court for assault, attempted kidnapping and attempted murder.


Police arrested her early Monday in a parking lot at Orlando International Airport after she had driven nearly 1,000 miles from her home in Houston to intercept 30-year-old Capt. Colleen Shipman as she arrived on a flight.

Nowak saw Shipman as a rival for the affection of astronaut and Navy Cmdr. William A. Oefelein, 41.

Wearing a trench coat and wig, Nowak, 43, allegedly fired pepper spray at Shipman, who managed to escape and alert police. Investigators said Nowak was carrying a 4-inch buck knife, steel mallet, latex gloves, rubber tubing, garbage bags and a BB gun in a black duffel bag.

In court Tuesday, Nowak appeared in a blue prison jumpsuit, haggard and silent, with her eyes cast toward the floor.

It was a sharp contrast to her television appearance during the July shuttle mission to the International Space Station. She appeared then with her crew mates decked out in a bright-orange space suit, beaming the endless smile that has become part of the public persona of NASA astronauts.

Space agency officials said they believed this was the first time an active-duty astronaut had been arrested on felony charges.

After her court appearance, her family members in Maryland and Virginia sent out an e-mail to journalists, describing her as a “caring and dedicated mother” and pleading for understanding.

“Considering both her personal and professional life, these alleged events are completely out of character and have come as a tremendous shock to our family,” the e-mail said. “We are anxious to allow the facts to develop so that we can better understand what happened, and why.”

There also was confusion in Houston, the hometown of the manned space program.

At Frenchie’s, an Italian restaurant and NASA hangout near Johnson Space Center, owner Frankie Camera lamented the troubles of a woman he had come to know and admire.

Nowak’s autographed photo, taken with the rest of her shuttle crew, hangs in the restaurant, along with dozens of other astronaut portraits.

“She is a brilliant girl. A beautiful girl, normal and nice,” Camera said. “When something like that happens to your head, it’s sad.... I feel really bad. I hope she’s all right.”

All through her life, Nowak had the right stuff.

She grew up in Rockville, Md., as Lisa Caputo. Her mother was a biologist and her father a computer consultant. One of three daughters, Nowak seemed destined to succeed.

Dennis Alloy, a classmate from the now-closed Charles W. Woodward High School, where Nowak was co-valedictorian in 1981, described her as a friendly overachiever who excelled in math and science.

Even then, he said, “she had her eye on the space program.”

Nowak was 6 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, and it made a deep impression on her, she later said.

“If you don’t explore and take risks and go do all these things, then everything will stay the same,” she told a NASA interviewer in 2005. “People aren’t like that. We want to explore and expand and know more about the place around us.”

At the U.S. Naval Academy, she majored in aerospace engineering and met her future husband, fellow cadet Richard Nowak. After graduation in 1985, she spent six months at NASA and became hooked on the promise of spaceflight.

She was a Navy test pilot, but all of her achievements were stepping stones to one of the most elite jobs in the world.

There are only about 100 NASA astronauts. The applicant pool is enormously qualified. Those who make it past the initial screenings are subjected to a large, comprehensive battery of medical tests, including a psychological evaluation. Just 0.7% of applicants are ultimately chosen.

Nowak joined the select few in 1996. By all accounts, she thrived in the male-dominated world of space exploration.

She prided herself on not having to choose between being a mother and an astronaut, and saw herself as an example for young women.

In 2003, in an interview with the website, she described how she and her husband, who worked in mission control for the International Space Station, managed to raise their son, then 11, and twin daughters, who were 2.

“We both had to work three- to seven-day shifts with unusual hours -- evenings and overnight -- and had to make sure we never got assigned at the same time so that someone was home with the kids,” she said. She also thanked her “wonderful” nanny.

The high point of her career was her 12-day mission to the International Space Station. She worked as a mission specialist, operating the shuttle’s robotic arm.

The family lived in a Houston suburb in a two-story house on a cul-de-sac. A grand piano sat in the living room.

But all was not well in the Nowak household.

She had begun to form a relationship with Oefelein, who was married and had two children. He was the pilot of the December shuttle mission.

Nowak told police Monday that the relationship was “more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship.”

In 2005, Oefelein and his wife of 17 years, Michealla, divorced. Charlene Davis, Michealla’s mother, said she blamed Nowak, in part, for the breakup.

“I have not met Lisa,” Davis said. “I only know that she broke my daughter’s heart.” Oefelein could not be reached for comment.

Nowak separated from her husband in mid-January. Shipman said Monday in a court filing seeking a restraining order that Nowak had been stalking her for two months. Shipman described Nowak as “an acquaintance of my boyfriend.”

After Nowak discovered that Shipman, an engineer at Patrick Air Force Base south of Kennedy Space Center, would be flying from Houston to Orlando, she began to execute what Florida State Atty. Amanda Cowan called “a very well-thought-out plan.”

Nowak constructed a handwritten map to Shipman’s home near Cape Canaveral. Authorities said she scrutinized the Orlando airport website to trace Shipman’s expected route from the airport terminal to her car in a satellite parking lot.

Then, wearing diapers to avoid stopping for restroom breaks, she drove from Houston to an Orlando motel, where she checked in using a false name and paid cash for her room.

At the airport, police said, Nowak waited for Shipman’s plane, boarded the bus with her to a distant parking lot and followed her to her car. Saying she needed to borrow Shipman’s cellphone, Nowak persuaded Shipman to inch down her window, then shot her with pepper spray, police said.

Shipman managed to drive away and find a parking lot attendant.

During her court hearing Tuesday, Nowak’s attorney, Donald Lykkebak, accused police of heaping exaggerated charges on his client.

He called the police accusations of attempted murder “mere speculation.”

Lykkebak said Nowak’s plan was nothing more sinister than trying to get Shipman’s attention. Rather than a vengeful woman bent on murder, Nowak was simply a desperate woman, he said, who wanted to scare her rival into talking with her.

“She doesn’t shoot her, she doesn’t stab her, she doesn’t do anything,” Lykkebak said.

Nowak posted $25,500 bail and left the jail Tuesday afternoon.

The judge ordered that she be fitted with a GPS monitoring device that will warn Shipman if Nowak enters Florida.

Michael L. Coats, director of Johnson Space Center in Houston, said Nowak had been placed on 30-day leave, barring her from all mission-related activities.

Nowak was just about to take on a new assignment at Johnson Space Center, perhaps as a communications specialist in mission control who becomes the primary contact with astronauts in orbit.


Hart reported from Houston, and Johnson, Kaplan and Zarembo from Los Angeles.