Astronaut Goes Nuts, Attempts Kidnap and Murder for Love

Sex in space. Now that’s an interesting angle.

They say love can do that to you. Drive you crazy, to the point of murder. Lisa Nowak, U.S. astronaut and mother of three, got caught up in an insane vortex of passion and now stands charged with attempted kidnapping and attempted murder. Hers is a bizarre, cautionary tale just in time for Valentine’s Day.

We’ve heard of alpha males. Well, Lisa Nowak was an Alpha Female, the leader of her pack. Intensely competitive, she was high school valedictorian and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. She made her mark in a very macho field, as a gung-ho naval aviator who still managed to get a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, all while raising a young family. She became a test pilot and, by 1998, was a NASA astronaut. In July 2006, she was a member of the crew on the space shuttle Discovery and was lauded for her contributions to the flight. She was a role model, respected by her peers and idolized by those who believe that a woman can have it all: family, achievement, professional recognition.
But as they say, everyone has a dark side. The intense stresses on her life and career brought this out in Ms. Nowak, in spades.

NASA astronauts, supposedly made of the “Right Stuff”, exist on a different plane from their more earthbound brethren. The shared hardship, dangers and the undoubtedly exhilarating work environment builds a special bond among astronauts. Nowak got emotionally involved with a fellow astronaut, William Oefelein, whose own marriage ended in divorce in 2005. She described this involvement, puzzlingly, as “more than working relationship but less than a romantic relationship”. Nowak’s marriage was clearly in trouble, and a few weeks ago she separated from her husband of 19 years, who took custody of their teenage son and twin 5-year old girls.

Things got complicated fast. It appears Oefelein was also seeing Colleen Shipman, an Air Force captain from Florida. Nowak felt in control of most of the events in her life. She was damn well going to take control of this situation.

On Tuesday, Nowak drove non-stop from Houston, Texas to Orlando, Florida (a distance of approx. 1,500 kms.), wearing diapers so as to dispense with any rest stops. Wearing a wig and a trenchcoat and armed with pepper spray, a BB gun, a steel mallet, a knife and rubber tubing, she sought out her rival. She followed Shipman to her car and after a brief altercation, used pepper spray on Shipman and tried to drag her away. Shipman’s cries for help attracted attention and Nowak was apprehended. Her premeditated behavior and the gear found in her possession led to her being charged with attempted murder and attempted kidnapping. After posting bail, Nowak was flown back to Houston under heavy guard to face a medical and psychological assessment and an uncertain future.

Nowak is clearly a very disturbed woman and deserves much sympathy. Almost certainly, her flying days are over. Her lurid fall from grace will be tabloid fodder in the months to come. We can only hope that she and her family will eventually recover. The silver lining is that NASA has been forced to re-study and revise its recruitment and psychological evaluation processes in the workplace.

The most obvious lesson here ? Love triangles are inherently unmanageable.

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