NASA To Review Astronaut Screening Process - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

02/08/07 - Houston, Texas

NASA To Review Astronaut Screening Process

Lisa Nowak Lisa Nowak

NASA said Wednesday it would review its psychological screening process after an astronaut's arrest on charges she tried to murder a woman she believed was her romantic rival for a space shuttle pilot's affections.

Hiding her face from the media, Lisa Nowak returned to Texas and the Johnson Space Center for a medical assessment Wednesday, a day after being charged in Florida with attempted first-degree murder, attempted kidnapping and three other crimes.

Nowak had shown no signs of instability before her arrest, said Deputy NASA Administrator Shana Dale. "As you know, it's a very tight-knit community that cared about each other."

Police said Nowak, accustomed to wearing astronaut diapers during the space shuttle's launch and return, wore them on a 900-mile drive from Houston to Florida so she would not have to make bathroom stops as she raced to confront Colleen Shipman at the Orlando International Airport. A police affidavit said Nowak, in a wig and trench coat, had "stealthily followed the victim while in disguise and possessed multiple deadly weapons," including a knife and steel mallet.

She was released on bail but ordered to stay away from Shipman and wear a monitoring device.

Nowak underwent a medical assessment Wednesday at the Johnson Space Center, said NASA spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters, who would not say whether that included a psychological evaluation. "She's not staying here. She's leaving with her family," Cloutier-Lemasters said.

NASA officials declined to comment when asked if Nowak's arrest meant the end of her NASA career. Nowak will be replaced as a ground communicator for the next space shuttle mission, where she would have talked to the astronauts from Houston during their flight.

Dale said Nowak's arrest would not have a long-term impact on the space program.

"This is a tragic event that impacted many lives, but this is a unique situation that we're facing," Dale said.

It was a remarkable downfall for a woman whose life seemed to be on a perfect trajectory until a few months ago. Just weeks ago, Nowak and her husband separated after 19 years.

Nowak became an astronaut after winning a series of Navy service awards. She had flown on the shuttle Discovery, and was a mother of three children. She said in a September interview with Ladies Home Journal magazine that her husband, Richard, "works in Mission Control, so he's part of the whole space business, too. And supportive also."

"I interviewed her before her flight last summer and I remember walking away from that thinking she's like every other first-time flier: extremely, excited about the flight," CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood said on CBS' The Early Show.

"When I heard that name and heard what was going on, I was as shocked as everyone else," Harwood said of Nowak.

But there were signs that not everything was right in her life.

In a NASA interview last year, before her mission aboard Discovery, she spoke about the strain her career placed on her family. She has twin 5-year-old girls and a teenage son.

"It's a sacrifice for our own personal time and our families and the people around us," she said. "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."

In November, a neighbor reported hearing the sounds of dishes being thrown inside Nowak's Houston-area home.

The final unraveling came this week after police arrested her for allegedly trying to kidnap Shipman, whom she believed was her rival for the affections of astronaut William Oefelein. In Orlando, she boarded an airport shuttle bus with Shipman and followed her to her car. Crying, Nowak sprayed a chemical into the car. Shipman drove to a parking lot booth for help.

"Perplexed is the word that I'm sticking with," said astronaut Chris Ferguson, who attended Nowak's bail hearing in Orlando.

Jon Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who lost his wife, astronaut Laurel Clark, in the Columbia disaster in 2003, told CNN on Wednesday that Nowak supported his family then and he supports her now.

"She was a mother before she was an astronaut. I mean, she really was into family life, and what's happened in the last few days has just been totally a shock. She is a really wonderful, good, caring person," he said. "You have to find forgiveness and love in your heart to get her through this."

NASA needs to have a stronger psychological and behavioral health support system for shuttle astronauts, Clark said.

"They don't have to have any evaluation before or after a mission, and it is only when something catastrophic happens does this ever even come to light," he said.

Police charged Nowak with attempting to murder Shipman based on weapons and other items found with Nowak or in her car: pepper spray, a BB-gun, a steel mallet, knife and rubber tubing.

"We believe that the items that we found certainly would have caused Colleen Shipman serious bodily injury or death," Orlando Police Sgt. Barb Jones said. That was enough for probable cause, she said. The state, which has the burden of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt, will decide on the formal charges to pursue.

Nowak's lawyer, Donald Lykkebak, took issue with the most serious charge against her, saying: "In the imaginations of the police officers, they extend these facts out into areas where the facts can't be supported."

Nowak posted $25,500 bail Tuesday evening, and NASA put her on a 30-day leave and removed her from mission activities.

In court Tuesday in Florida, Shipman filed a request for a protective order against Nowak, asking that Nowak be prohibited from going within 500 feet of her. In the handwritten request, she described Nowak as an "acquaintance of boyfriend," but did not identify the man. She said Nowak had stalked her for two months.

Nowak and Oefelein, a 41-year-old Navy commander, had trained together as astronauts, but never flew into space together. Shipman works at Patrick Air Force Base near Kennedy Space Center.

Earlier, Nowak was quoted by police as saying she and Oefelein had something "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship."

Police found a letter in Nowak's car, however, that "indicated how much Mrs. Nowak loved Mr. Oefelein," an arrest affidavit said. Nowak had copies of e-mails between Shipman and Oefelein.

Oefelein flew to Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday and is "voluntarily cooperating with authorities," NASA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said Wednesday. She said he is not granting interviews to reporters.

Shipman, a 30-year-old engineer assigned to the 45th Launch Support Squadron, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Nowak's home was unlit Tuesday, and her husband could not be located.

"Personally, Lisa is an extremely caring and dedicated mother to her three children," a statement from Nowak's family said. "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."

Story courtesy of the Associated Press.

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