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- February 19, 2007
- Vol. 67
- No. 7
Out of This World
Last July Lisa Nowak Flew on the Space Shuttle. Now Police Say the NASA Vet Drove 900 Miles, Donned a Wig and Tried to Kidnap a Rival in a Bizarre Astronaut Love Triangle
As the world now knows, Lisa Nowak—a highly regarded astronaut who flew aboard the shuttle Discovery last summer—wasn't meeting her boyfriend but rather the woman she believed was stealing the man she loved. What happened next—a frantic and violent confrontation in the airport parking lot, the result of a bizarre love triangle—has left NASA officials, and anyone who knows Nowak, absolutely stunned. Nowak, 43, a married mother of three, was in love with Navy Cmdr. William Oefelein, 41, who trained alongside her in NASA's space shuttle program and piloted the Discovery in a mission last December. At the same time, Oefelein, the divorced father of two children, was apparently romantically involved with Colleen Shipman, 30, a U.S. Air Force captain and engineer assigned to a base near Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
According to police, Nowak found Shipman's flight plans on Oefelein's computer and learned that she was flying from Houston to Orlando. She packed a steel mallet, a 4-in. knife, a BB gun and large trash bags and drove more than 900 miles from her home in Houston to Orlando—while wearing a NASA-issue space diaper so she wouldn't have to stop. She confronted Shipman at the airport and sprayed her with pepper spray before police arrested her. "We're perplexed and concerned and trying to determine what really happened," said Doug Peterson, spokesman at Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Everything I've ever seen gave evidence to me that Lisa was one of our good astronauts; she had all the right background credentials, skills and abilities. We don't know what happened here."
At first prosecutors initially charged Nowak—who had been designated to be a capsule communicator for the next space shuttle flight on March 15—with attempted kidnapping but later added another charge of attempted first-degree murder; Nowak was released on $25,500 bail and allowed to go home with an electronic monitoring device around her ankle. Shipman, meanwhile, filed a restraining order against Nowak and claimed Nowak had been stalking her for two months.
How did one of NASA's very best and brightest wind up in such a desperate situation? What few people knew was that Nowak's personal life was cracking under the stress of her pressurized job. Neighbors in the affluent Houston suburb of Clear Lake—where Nowak lived with her husband, Richard, 43, a flight controller in Mission Control for the International Space Station; their son Alexander, 15; and twin 5-year-old daughters, Katrina and Alyssa—had no idea anything was wrong with the couple's 19-year marriage. "As far as I knew, everything was fine," says David Silva, who lives across from the Nowaks' two-story brick home in a cul-de-sac. "They're good people." Even Nowak's parents weren't aware her situation was so dire. "Her mother says she wishes she would have known that Lisa was so confused," says Nowak's cousin Tony Caputo, 58. "Her family doesn't know what to do. They are completely devastated by this."
But Nowak's younger sister Andrea Rose told PEOPLE that Nowak and her husband had recently separated; she also said Nowak never quite recovered from losing three former classmates in the 2003 Columbia shuttle explosion. "We knew Lisa was under a lot of stress," says Rose, 41, a lawyer. "But there's no way of knowing how a particular person will react to stress. We love Lisa and we're worried about her well-being." Nowak "is a very loving mother and a caring person," adds her brother-in-law Jonathan Rose. "She was someone who played by the rules. To say this is out of character would be a gross understatement."
It's not clear what kind of relationship Nowak had with Oefelein or what role her attraction to him played in the breakup of her marriage. (She told police she and Oefelein had "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship.") In any case, Nowak apparently believed Oefelein was involved with Colleen Shipman, an Air Force engineer assigned to Patrick Air Force Base near Kennedy Space Center. Shipman, her neighbors say, was unusually warm and bubbly. "If you don't have a smile," says one neighbor, "she'll give you one of hers."
Her relationship with Oefelein, it seems, pushed Nowak over the edge. According to police, Nowak drove more than 900 miles from Houston to Orlando and finally arrived at the La Quinta Inn just outside the Orlando International Airport. Wearing glasses, a dark wig and a light-colored trench coat, she went to the airport and searched for Shipman, who got off a 1:05 a.m. flight from Houston. Nowak followed her onto a shuttle van and got off at the same spot in the parking lot. Shipman heard "running footsteps coming towards her as she was getting into her car," police later recounted. "[She] feared for her safety [and] quickly entered her vehicle."
That's when Nowak banged on the windows and tried to yank open the car doors. "Can you help me, please, my boyfriend was supposed to pick me up and he's not here," Nowak yelled at Shipman, who didn't unlock her door but who did lower her driver side window two inches once Nowak started crying. Nowak promptly shot pepper spray into Shipman's face. "That was stupid," Nowak later told police.
Shipman drove away and summoned police, who found Nowak throwing her wig and BB gun into a garbage can. More incriminating supplies were inside a black duffel bag she was carrying: the brand new steel mallet; several feet of rubber tubing; six latex gloves; large plastic trash bags and $600 in cash. Nowak insisted to police that she merely wanted to speak to Shipman and to scare her away from Oefelein. But prosecutor Amanda Cowan called Nowak's scheme "a very well-thought-out plan to kidnap and perhaps injure the victim." At the police station Nowak "kept saying, 'I can't believe this is happening to me,'" says one of the Orlando police officers who booked her. "A few times, she told us, 'I've never done anything like this before. I'm really sorry.' You could tell that she knew she had blown it, and she wanted us to know that this wasn't the type of person she normally was."
Nowak's arrest is all the more stunning because of her remarkable career. Raised in an upscale section of Rockville, Md., by Alfredo Caputo, a computer consultant, and his wife, Jane, a retired microbiologist, she fell in love with space travel when she was 5. "I remember the moon landing and watching those astronauts, and I thought that was very exciting" she said in a 2005 NASA interview. Early on, classmates could tell Nowak "was naturally gifted," says Mike Haggerty, who lived near her and graduated with her from C.W. Woodward High. "Her dream was always to be an astronaut. She wanted to walk on the moon."
Nowak majored in aerospace engineering at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and spent 10 years in the Navy, rising to the rank of captain. In 1995 she was accepted into the NASA training program. Some 3,500 candidates vie every year for 20 slots in the space shuttle program, an intense and highly stressful competition. "NASA does its best to get cool customers; it wants to weed out who's going to crack when they're in the tin can," says Brian Berger, senior staff writer for Space News, which chronicles NASA. "Astronauts tend to be the cream of the crop. All the astronauts I know are unflappable, really together people."
Nowak seemed no exception. Still, the rigors of training put a strain on her family life; while preparing for missions she often spent weeks away from her husband and children. "There's not a lot of time for [personal things] and less time for family," Nowak said in a 2005 interview. "It's a sacrifice." When NASA chose her to be one of six astronauts on a mission aboard Discovery in July 2006, Nowak's life became even more hectic. "I am lucky to have a very supportive husband," she said in an interview shortly before the shuttle flight. "For me, family is first." In fact, it was Nowak's son Alexander who helped her confront any fears she felt about going up in space only three years after the tragic explosion of the Columbia space shuttle, which killed seven astronauts, including three of Nowak's former classmates. "The day Columbia happened, [Alex] was there sitting with me, and we're watching the television, and there's people he knows that were on that flight," Nowak told Ladies Home Journal last September. "He reaches over and grabs my hand and says, 'Mom, I still want you to go.... I know they'll make it safe again, and I still want you to go.'"
Aboard Discovery, Nowak was in charge of robotic operations, supervising groundbreaking experiments with spacewalking robots. Her performance during the 13-day mission, says Johnson Space Center's Doug Peterson, "was excellent." Once back home, however, Nowak's attraction to Bill Oefelein spiraled out of control. Stephen Harrigan, an Austin-based writer who spent one year interviewing female astronauts for his novel Challenger Park, says they face unique pressures. "They are thrust together with other people in a very bonding way for many, many hours every day," says Harrigan. "The female astronaut, with a family and children, is really pushed to the wall." Still, says Harrigan, what Nowak did "is not typical or normal. But you can see how the pressure cooker of training for missions and being in that intense environment could lead a person into strange new territory."
While prosecutors sort out the charges against Nowak, NASA officials are deciding how to handle what happened. "Our primary concern is Lisa's health and well-being," said NASA's Chief of Astronauts Corps, Col. Steve Lindsey, who trained with Nowak and traveled to Orlando to be with her shortly after her arrest. "We're a close family, and we try to take care of our own." Lindsey, like everyone who knows Lisa Nowak, is facing a struggle to make some sense of the sad, strange turn her life has taken. "For someone who had the ability to do whatever she wanted, who had so much more to give to the world," says her old friend Mike Haggerty, "this is just unfathomable."
- Rose Ellen O'Connor/Rockville,
- Jeff Truesdell/Orlando,
- Steve Helling/Orlando,
- Alicia Dennis/Austin,
- Wendy Grossman/Houston,
- John Perra/New York City.
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