HOUSTON – 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 young female Air Force officer who was dating the NASA astronaut that Nowak longed for.
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 morning in a parking lot at the Orlando (Fla.) International Airport after she had driven nearly 1,000 miles from her home in Houston to intercept the young woman as she arrived on a flight.
Nowak saw 30-year-old Capt. Colleen Shipman as a rival for the affection of astronaut and Navy Cmdr. William Oefelein, 41.
Wearing a trench coat and wig, Nowak, 43, fired pepper spray at Shipman, who managed to escape and alert police. Investigators said Nowak was carrying a 4-inch Buck knife, a 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 the public persona of NASA astronauts.
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.”
The family had no answers. There was only confusion in Houston, the hometown of the manned space program.
At Frenchie’s, an Italian restaurant and NASA hangout near the Johnson Space Center, owner Frankie Camera lamented the troubles of a woman he had come to know and admire.
“She is a brilliant girl. A beautiful girl, normal and nice,” Camera said. “When something like that happens to your head, it’s sad. You see people so stable, then all the sudden they’re unstable. I feel really bad. I hope she’s all right.”
All through her life, until now, 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 sisters, Nowak seemed destined to succeed.
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.
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 percent of applicants are ultimately chosen.
Nowak joined the select few in 1996. She prided herself on not having to chose between being a mother and an astronaut. She could manage it all and saw herself as an example for young women.
In 2003, in an interview with the Web site parenthood.com, 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 thanked her “wonderful” nanny.
The high point of her career was her 12-day mission to the space station. She worked as a mission specialist, operating the shuttle’s robotic arm.
But all was not well in the Nowaks’ Houston household.
She had begun to form a relationship with Oefelein, who was married and had two children. He was the pilot of the shuttle mission in December.
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, were divorced. Charlene Davis, Michealla’s mother, said she blamed Nowak, in part, for the breakup. She called Nowak “a leech of a woman.”
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 taking a flight from Houston to Orlando, she began to execute what Florida state attorney Amanda Cowan called “a very well-thought-out plan.”
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, Lykkebak said, Nowak was simply a desperate woman.