Written by Maria Newman and Christine Hauser and Originally Published in The New York TImes on February 6, 2007
The police in Orlando, Fla., filed attempted murder charges today against Capt. Lisa Marie Nowak, a NASA astronaut who the authorities say attacked a rival for another astronaut’s affection at Orlando International Airport on Monday after driving more than 900 miles from Houston to meet her flight.
Captain Nowak, a Navy captain who flew on a shuttle mission last summer, was originally arrested on attempted kidnapping and other charges, and a judge initially set a $15,500 bond at a court session this morning.
But this afternoon, the police filed the new charges against her, saying they had evidence that Captain Nowak intended ”to do serious bodily injury or death” to Colleen Shipman, a captain in the Air Force, because she considered Captain Shipman to be a rival in her romance with a fellow NASA astronaut, Cmdr. Bill Oefelein.
When the police arrested Captain Nowak, they found in her possession a steel mallet, a buck knife with a four-inch blade, a BB gun and a map to Captain Shipman’s house, they said.
Captain Nowak’s lawyer argued this afternoon that prosecutors and the police did not have enough evidence to back up the more severe charges, but were only trying to persuade the judge to order Captain Nowak to remain in custody.
The judge increased the bond for Captain Nowak by an additional $10,000, which would still allow her to go free pending her trial. But the judge said Captain Nowak would have to wear an electronic tracking device and ordered her to stay away from the woman she is accused of trying to harm, Colleen Shipman, a captain in the Air Force.
According to the police, Captain Nowak drove more than 950 miles from Houston to Orlando to meet with Captain Shipman, who was flying from Houston to her home in the Orlando area at the same time — because she wanted to confront Captain Shipman after discovering that she too was involved with Commander Oefelein.
Captain Nowak, 43, was wearing a trench coat and wig when she was arrested early Monday morning. She told the police she had worn diapers on the journey so that she would not have to stop to use the restroom so she could arrive in time to meet Captain Shipman’s flight at the airport.
The police also found a knife, BB pistol, and latex gloves in her car, a police affidavit said.
In the morning court session, Captain Nowak mostly kept her head down during her preliminary appearance. But she nodded and said “yes” a few times when the judge explained that she was not to have any contact with Captain Shipman. Captain Nowak and Commander Oefelein are listed on the NASA Web site among the 97 active duty astronauts.
A NASA official told the court today that before the incident, the two women did not know each other. A biography of Captain Nowak on the NASA Web site says that she is married with three children. Captain Shipman is an engineer assigned to the 45th Launch Support Squadron at Patrick Air Force base near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, base officials said.
Captain Nowak’s superior at NASA, Steve Lindsey, and a fellow astronaut, Chris Ferguson, both appeared on in court this morning on her behalf. The men flew to Orlando, they told reporters, to support Captain Nowak and as representatives of NASA.
"We’re here supporting Lisa,” said Colonel Lindsey, who said he has known her for 11 years. “Our primary focus is her health and well-being and taking care of her and keeping her safe and getting her with her family so they can deal with this very private and difficult matter.”
Television stations juxtaposed Captain Nowak’s official NASA photo, showing her smiling broadly in an orange flight suit, with a mug shot showing her looking wan and disheveled, with a furrowed brow and her hair splayed in all directions.
Captain Nowak, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy who also had a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, operated a robotic arm during the shuttle mission last July. She had been scheduled to work at the Johnson Space Center on the planned Atlantis mission next month, relaying messages to the shuttle crew.
Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA spokeswoman, said today that Captain Nowak’s status at NASA was placed under review following her arrest.
The Orlando police say that that Captain Nowak told them when she learned of Captain Shipman’s plans to fly to Orlando, she decided to drive to meet and talk with her. She disguised herself in a dark wig, glasses and trench coat to confront Captain Shipman in a parking lot of Orlando International Airport, according to a police affidavit.
Captain Shipman told the police that she noticed a woman following her shortly after arriving on a flight from Houston at about 1 a.m. on Monday, when she was waiting for a bus to take her from the terminal to her parking lot to pick up her car. The two women boarded the same bus, she told the police, and got off at the same stop.
At the parking lot, Captain Shipman noticed the other woman was following her, she told the police, and quickly entered her car after hearing “running footsteps” behind her.
Captain Nowak, with her hood pulled over her head, approached the car window and tried to open the door.
“Can you help me please?” she said to Captain Shipman, according to the affidavit. “My boyfriend was supposed to pick me up and he is not here. I’ve been traveling and it’s late. Can you give me a ride to the parking office?”
Captain Shipman said no, but offered to send help, which Captain Nowak declined, asking to use her cellphone instead. Captain Shipman told her the battery was dead.
When Captain Shipman would not open the door, Captain Nowak began to cry and said she could not hear Captain Shipman, the affidavit said. When Captain Shipman cracked open the window, Captain Nowak sprayed pepper spray into the vehicle, the authorities said.
Captain Shipman then drove away and summoned the authorities.
Captain Nowak later told police that spraying the pepper spray “was stupid,” according to the affidavit, and said she only wanted to scare Captain Shipman into talking to her.
“Nowak felt that she needed to meet with Shipman and discuss the details of their relationship with the male astronaut,” a police statement said.
In court this morning, Captain Nowak’s lawyer argued that she was an “excellent candidate for pre-trial release” because she had no criminal record, and that he saw no attempt to kidnap, but rather an “attempt to speak to some one in their vehicle.”
He said that Captain Nowak had an exemplary record of commitment to her space career and the country, indicating she could be trusted to return to court and to stay away from Captain Shipman. “One’s good works must count for something,” he said.
The assistant state attorney, Amanda Cowan, said the facts indicated a carefully conceived plan to kidnap and perhaps injure Captain Shipman.
The police said Captain Nowak described her relationship with Commander Oefelein as “more than a working relationship, but less than a romantic relationship.” Commander Oefelein served on a mission by space shuttle Discovery in December.