Houston, She's Got Some Problems

NASA has been screening astronauts for decades and isn't supposed to let loose screws through. Is it not as good as we thought? Or are astronauts more fragile than they seem?

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Nowak Family / AP

Astronaut Lisa Nowak and her husband Rich pose with their twin daughters on the occasion of the babies' baptisms in the spring of 2002 in Houston.

Give the folks at NASA this much — they know how to close ranks. Astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak was arrested this week and charged with attempted murder after driving 900 miles from Houston to Orlando, Fla., allegedly carrying a knife, a BB gun, pepper spray, latex gloves and rubber tubing—wearing a diaper all the while so she wouldn't have to stop en route—and assaulting a romantic rival in a parking lot. After all that, NASA spokesman James Hartsfield assured the press: "Her status as an astronaut is currently unchanged." If crazy doesn't get you bumped from the flight rotation, what does? Nowak, of course, is through as an astronaut. Just as important, she's through as an icon—and she was a very good one. A 43-year-old Naval Academy graduate and married mother of three, she managed the demographic hat trick of career, motherhood and military. No buzz-cut, fists-on-hips Al Shepard or Deke Slayton was better suited to his era than Nowak was to hers.

The perfectly lurid way it all came unraveled is a tale that doesn't require much telling—not that it won't be told and told and told again by cable, tabs and blogs. The truly meaningful question is why that unraveling happened at all. Annapolis grads and shuttle jocks aren't supposed to come unglued. And NASA, a brutally Darwinian place that has been screening astronauts for almost 50 years, is not supposed to let loose screws through. Is NASA not as good at this as we thought? Are astronauts more destructible souls than they seem? And what does all this say about the weight-bearing ability of any human mind when the load grows too great? Whatever burdens Nowak was carrying, when she crashed, she crashed hard. A veteran of a single shuttle flight, she had developed what she later told police was "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship" with William Oefelein, 41, a divorced astronaut who flew in space in December. Unfortunately for Nowak, Oefelein may have had a relationship of his own with Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, single and 30. In recent weeks, Nowak separated from her husband. In the buttoned-up world of NASA, all that makes for a nasty stew.

Shipman was planning to fly into Orlando late Sunday, and apparently Nowak decided to confront her there and embarked on the long drive from Houston to Florida with the alleged cache of weapons and now much snickered-about diaper. Wearing a dark wig, glasses and a trench coat, police said, she was waiting when Shipman's flight landed after 1 a.m. on Monday, and followed her to the parking lot. After Shipman got into her car and closed the door, Nowak supposedly appeared at the window, pleading for a ride or the use of a cell phone.

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