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?

  • 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.

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    "No, if you need help, I'll send someone," Shipman responded, according to her police statement. She did, however, open the window a crack, and when she did, Nowak reportedly hit her with a burst of pepper spray. Shipman drove off and asked an attendant to call the police. An officer appeared and reported seeing Nowak throw away a bag that contained the wig and BB gun.

    Nowak was arrested and charged with battery and attempted kidnapping and murder. She was freed on bail but is required to wear an ankle bracelet that monitors her movements and ensures she doesn't try to re-enter Florida. She then flew home to Houston, exiting the Orlando airport in a burst of flashbulbs similar to the one she experienced last summer when she and her crewmates made the traditional march to the launchpad van. But this time she had her jacket over her head and offered no waves to the crowd.

    The legal outlook for Nowak is hard to handicap. Prosecutors would probably have an easier time making the battery and kidnapping charges stick than the attempted-murder count. "What we have is a desperate woman who wants to have a conversation with the other woman," an angry defense attorney, Donald Lykkebak, argued to the judge before her release. "She doesn't shoot her. She doesn't stab her."

    No matter how Nowak's legal woes are resolved, larger questions will remain. Most pressing is how a woman who could come so unhinged was deemed fit to fly as recently as last July. Astronauts undergo exhaustive psychological tests before they are accepted to the flight corps as well as annual physical and mental exams after that. Additionally, they are evaluated before, during and after missions. Even so, there's only so much that can be learned, and for someone like Nowak, who joined NASA in 1996, the 11 years between her initial assessment and the recent unpleasantness provided a lot of time in which she could have grown quietly unstable.

    Much has been made of the postflight letdown astronauts experience, when a mission they anticipated for years is all at once over. This can be especially cruel in the current NASA, where too many astronauts are queuing up for too few flights aboard shuttles that will be mothballed in 2010. Astronaut Dave Scott, commander of Apollo 15, recalls coming back from the moon and later attending a neighborhood barbecue held in his honor. The discordance between the lunar surface he had recently camped on and the small-bore world he returned to left him dazed. He quickly recovered, and Nowak likely did too. "Everyone in the program knows it's coming to an end," says space historian and author William Burrows. "She's probably way too smart to succumb to that."

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