Like most of today’s astronauts, Lisa Marie Nowak worked in relative obscurity — even last July, when she took the spaceflight that she had spent 10 years at NASA hoping for.
She is famous now, the smiling image of her in astronaut gear a sharp contrast with her police mugshot — a woman with wild hair wearing an expression of personal devastation.
She is charged with the attempted murder of a woman she believed to be her rival for the affections of a fellow astronaut. Police officials say she drove 900 miles to Florida from Texas, wearing a diaper so she would not have to stop for rest breaks. In Orlando, they say, she confronted her rival in a parking lot, attacking her with pepper spray.
Captain Nowak was in disguise at the time, wearing a wig, the police said. She had with her a compressed air pistol, a steel mallet, a knife, pepper spray, four feet of rubber tubing, latex gloves and garbage bags.
Those who know her say they are mystified. “I was in shock,” said Dennis Alloy, 43, of Tysons Corner, Va., a friend and high school classmate. “When I knew her, I couldn’t imagine an evil bone in her body.”
Many inside and outside the space agency are wondering how the problems of Captain Nowak, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1985 and served in the Navy before joining National Aeronautics and Space Administration, were not detected before this. Many are also wondering whether the “Right Stuff” image of astronauts has been tarnished, or if that image somehow confused technical excellence with emotional stability. “Like any other people, they’re human,” said George Abbey, director of the Johnson Space Center when Commander Nowak was selected for the astronaut corps and recalled her as “an outstanding candidate.”
Captain Nowak, 43, was arrested at 4 a.m. on Monday at Orlando International Airport, the police said, after attacking Colleen Shipman, an Air Force captain.
The police report, by Detective William C. Becton, said that Captain Nowak said she had not intended to harm Captain Shipman and said she believed that “this was the only time she was going to be able to speak” with her. The compressed air pistol she carried “was going to be used to entice Ms. Shipman to talk with her,” according to the report.
Detective Becton wrote, “When I asked Mrs. Nowak if she thought the pepper spray was going to help her speak with Ms. Shipman, she replied, ‘That was stupid.’ ”
According to the police report, Captain Nowak said she saw Captain Shipman, 30, as a rival for the affection of Cmdr. William A. Oefelein, a fellow astronaut. She told the police that she and Commander Oefelein, whose NASA nickname is Billy-O, had “more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship.” Commander Oefelein, 41, is divorced and has two children.
Tuesday was a day of confusion and quickly shifting events. Captain Nowak, a married mother of three, was brought before a judge for arraignment at 8:30 a.m. Two of her fellow astronauts — the chief of NASA’s astronaut office, Col. Steven W. Lindsey of the Air Force, and Capt. Christopher J. Ferguson of the Navy — were there to offer support.
The judge had agreed to release Captain Nowak on $15,000 bond on charges of kidnapping and battery, but the police added a charge of attempted murder, and bail was increased to $25,000.
In Orlando at the end of the day, Captain Nowak posted bail and, later in the evening, was fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet so her movements could be monitored after her return to Houston.
“She’s is going home,” said her lawyer , Donald Lykkebak.
Captain Nowak and her husband, Richard, a flight controller for the International Space Station, live with their children in a two-story brick-and-glass home on a cul-de-sac in suburban Houston.
Few neighbors there wanted to talk about the case, but one, who asked that his name not be used, said the couple had had an argument in November with raised voices and the sound of breaking china.
No one was home on Tuesday.
A statement from the family last night on the Web site of the Orlando Sentinel said that the Nowaks had been married for 19 years but that Captain Nowak and her husband “had separated a few weeks ago.” Michael Coats, the director of the Johnson Space Center, said in a statement: “We are deeply saddened by this tragic event. The charges against Lisa Nowak are serious ones that must be decided by the judicial system.”
Mr. Coats said Captain Nowak was “officially on 30-day leave and has been removed from flight status and all mission-related activities.”
He said NASA would “continue to monitor developments in the case.”