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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    Playing a greater role, perhaps, is the odd world that contemporary astronauts inhabit. The first astronauts were a disciplined bunch, but they were also test pilots. That meant that—with the exception of the well-mannered John Glenn—they spent their time enjoying the good whiskey, fast cars and plentiful women befitting their celebrity status. Back then NASA called these things high jinks and looked the other way. "The country needed heroes, so a myth was created," says Burrows. "NASA didn't go public with these matters."

    But today everything is public, and in the tut-tut world of exposé journalism, astronauts—particularly women—misbehave at their peril. Nowak's NASA bio includes a seemingly focus-group-tested list of 10 wholesome hobbies, such as running, skeet shooting and raising African violets—pastimes somewhat at odds with a 900-mile pursuit in a wig and diapers. For now, Nowak will have time to return to those hobbies: NASA has placed her on a 30-day leave. The space agency will move beyond this episode but has already publicly resolved to keep a closer eye on—and take better care of—the astronaut colleagues Nowak leaves behind.

    —With reporting by Hilary Hylton/Austin and Barbara Liston/Orlando

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