NASA is reviewing its psychological screening and checkup process in the wake of the arrest of Capt. Lisa M. Nowak, the astronaut accused of attempted murder, space agency officials said yesterday. It will also try to determine whether “indications of concern” in Captain Nowak’s case were overlooked.
Back Story With The Times's Ralph Blumenthal
Criminal Affidavits (Fla. v. Nowak)
Restraining Order (pdf)
From Spaceflight to Attempted Murder Charge (February 7, 2007)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Lisa M. Nowak, being escorted off a plane Wednesday in Houston.
Officials said, however, that her behavior had raised no obvious concerns recently and that she had been at work last week preparing for her job at mission control for the next shuttle flight, in March.
Captain Nowak, of the Navy, flew back from Orlando, Fla., to Houston yesterday morning. She covered her head with a jacket as she got off a commercial airliner, and was taken to the Johnson Space Center, where she was given medical tests, a space agency spokesman said.
The sad homecoming capped a tumultuous few days in which Captain Nowak drove more than 900 miles from Texas to Florida to confront an Air Force captain, Colleen Shipman, who she believed to be a rival for the affections of another astronaut. The police say Captain Nowak sprayed Captain Shipman with pepper spray at Orlando International Airport early Monday morning.
Captain Nowak, who wore diapers on the drive so she would not have to stop to relieve herself, took along a disguise, a compressed air pistol, a steel mallet, a knife, latex gloves and garbage bags, the police said. She was charged on Tuesday with attempted murder and released on bail.
NASA officials have said that this appears to be the first time that an active duty astronaut has been charged with a felony.
On Tuesday, Captain Shipman filed a request for a protective order against Captain Nowak. In that document, she stated that Captain Nowak had been stalking her for about two months and referred to the astronaut who officials say was the focus of Captain Nowak’s jealousy, Cmdr. William A. Oefelein of the Navy, as her “boyfriend.” She also said that she had not met Captain Nowak until the attack.
The officials said Captain Nowak’s parents had gone to Houston from Rockville, Md., to help her, and that her husband was taking care of their children. The couple separated recently, the family has said.
At a news conference in Washington, NASA officials described the events after Captain Nowak’s arrest. Captain Shipman informed Commander Oefelein, who was on leave in Florida, of the attack. He contacted Ellen Ochoa, the director of flight crew operations early Monday. The director of the Johnson Space Center, Michael Coats, then dispatched Col. Steven W. Lindsey to Florida to “offer any appropriate assistance.”
The arrest set the agency’s review process in motion, said Shana Dale, NASA’s deputy administrator.
On Tuesday morning, NASA’s administrator, Michael Griffin, ordered Mr. Coats to conduct the review of the space agency’s initial psychological screening and “ongoing psychological assessments during an astronaut’s career,” Ms. Dale said. Yesterday, he ordered a broader inquiry run from Washington that would use outside experts as well, she said.
The two-level review process is intended to find out if astronauts are getting the “level of psychological and medical care and attention they need,” Ms. Dale said. Despite the review, she added, “we think we’re doing things very, very well.”
She said the case should have no long-term impact on the space agency’s reputation, calling it “a unique situation.”
Agency officials insisted that asking for help with emotional problems did not hurt an astronaut’s chance of flying, but Dr. Jon Clark, a former NASA physician whose wife, Laurel Salton Clark, died in the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, said in an interview, “What people say and what’s reality are two different things.
“Astronauts know there is a stigma attached to this stuff,” he added.
The psychological services are delivered only on demand, he said, which is a problem for self-reliant astronauts. “They won’t come to you and say, ‘I’ve got a problem,’ ” he said.
Captain Nowak has been relieved of her duties and will not be involved in the shuttle mission scheduled to begin as early as March 15. She was going to be “capsule communicator,” or Capcom, relaying information to the astronauts aboard the shuttle from mission control. Substituting another astronaut into the position for the coming mission is relatively straightforward, said Col. Robert D. Cabana, the deputy director of the Johnson Space Center, speaking at the news conference from Houston.
In Houston, the Johnson Space Center locked down for what could be a long media siege. The news media swarmed in the neighborhoods where NASA workers live, and helicopters from television stations flew overhead.
The NASA astronaut family support office sent an e-mail message to the spouses of astronauts saying that “several astronaut families have been surprised by media representatives at their homes, and wished they had not opened their doors.”
“Use your own discretion if contacted by the press,” the message read. “However, check the credentials of anyone who contacts you to avoid a situation that could be awkward or even dangerous.”
NASA officials said the space agency had no rules governing fraternization and infidelity among astronauts corresponding to such rules in the military. Ms. Dale said that NASA simply expects astronauts to conduct themselves in ways that will reflect well on the agency.
A spokesman for the Navy said that it is too early to even start considering whether the Navy will conduct its own investigation or press its own charges against Captain Nowak. Any procedure would come after the case has worked its way through civilian courts, the spokesman said.
From Houston, Colonel Cabana said that people at the Johnson Space Center are trying to cope with their surprise and sadness at the bizarre chain of events, but are also working to retain their focus on the continuing support of the International Space Station and the coming shuttle mission.
When asked his impression of Captain Nowak, Colonel Cabana said she “was a vibrant, hard-working” — and then stopped himself briefly and started again, saying, “is a vibrant, hardworking, energetic person who did her job very well.”