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Astronaut charged with attempted murder

By Mike Schneider and Erin McCla The Associated Press

According to police, her obsession with him led her to drive 900 miles from Houston to Orlando, bringing with her a trenchcoat and wig, armed with a BB gun and pepper spray, and wearing a diaper to avoid bathroom breaks on the arduous drive.

Once in Florida, Lisa “Robochick” Nowak apparently confronted the woman she believed was her rival for the affections of William “Billy-O” Oefelein. And this tawdry love triangle has one more twist – it involves two astronauts.

Nowak, 43, a married mother of three who flew on a space shuttle in July, was charged with attempted murder, accused of hatching an extraordinary plot to kidnap Colleen Shipman, who she believed was romantically involved with Oefelein, a space shuttle pilot.

Specifically, police said Nowak confronted Shipman, who was in her car at the Orlando airport, and sprayed something at her, possibly pepper spray.

At first the astronaut was charged with attempted kidnapping and other counts, and a judge had permitted her release on bail. Then, in a surprise move, prosecutors upped the charge to attempted murder, basing it on the weapons and other items they said they had found with Nowak or in her car: a pepper spray package, an unused BB-gun cartridge, a new steel mallet, knife, rubber tubing and large garbage bags.

Nowak’s lawyer, Donald Lykkebak, disputed that upgraded charge, which allowed police to keep the astronaut in jail. “In the imaginations of the police officers, they extend these facts out into areas where the facts can’t be supported,” said Lykkebak.

As the hearings on charges and bail played out on TV, the astonishing details about the case were repeatedly broadcast and quickly made the rounds of office e-mails and Internet blogs.

The details of the relationships of all three were unclear. Nowak and Oefelein, who both live in the Houston area, had trained together as astronauts, but never flew into space together. Shipman, 30, works at Patrick Air Force Base near Kennedy Space Center.

Earlier, Nowak was quoted by police as saying she and Oefelein had something “more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship.”

Neither Oefelein nor Shipman could be reached for comment yesterday, nor could Nowak’s husband be found.

But police found a letter in Nowak’s car that “indicated how much Mrs. Nowak loved Mr. Oefelein,” the arrest affidavit said. And Nowak had copies of e-mails between Shipman and Oefelein.

Police said Nowak, believing Shipman was romantically involved with Oefelein, had driven 900 miles from Houston – wearing diapers in the car so she would not have to make bathroom stops – to confront Shipman as she arrived in Orlando on a flight from Houston.

There, police said, Nowak donned a wig and trench coat, boarded an airport shuttle bus with Shipman and followed her to her car. Then, crying, Nowak sprayed a chemical into the car.

Shipman drove to a parking lot booth and sought help.

Inside Nowak’s car, which was parked at a nearby motel, authorities copies of e-mails between Shipman and Oefelein, along with the BB-gun cartridge and other items.

A police affidavit made public Tuesday noted Nowak had “urinated in a diaper so that she did not need to stop,” and “stealthily followed the victim while in disguise and possessed multiple deadly weapons.”

The affidavit said the circumstances of the case “create a well-founded fear” and gave investigators “probable cause to believe that Mrs. Nowak intended to murder Ms. Shipman.”

The judge initially had set bail at $15,500 and ordered Nowak to stay away from Shipman and wear an electronic monitoring device upon returning to her home in Houston.

“I guess they didn’t like the ruling in the court this morning, did they?” Lykkebak said.

He said that Nowak only wanted to talk to Shipman. Asked about the weapons, he said, “You can sit and speculate all day.”

Saying he was surprised by the case, NASA spokesman John Ira Petty at Johnson Space Center in Houston said he was concerned about the people involved and their families. But, he added, “We try not to concern ourselves with our employees’ personal lives.”

A vague profile began to emerge of Nowak, who was graduated from high school in Maryland in 1981 and the U.S. Naval Academy in 1985. She has won various Navy service awards.

In a September interview with Ladies’ Home Journal, Nowak said her husband, Richard, “works in Mission Control, so he’s part of the whole space business, too. And supportive also.”

On Tuesday, a Houston neighbor, Bryan Lam, told The Associated Press that in November he heard the sounds of dishes being thrown inside the house and the police came.

“I’ve seen them arguing before,” he said.

Nowak, in a NASA interview last year, before her mission aboard Discovery, as well as in an interview with ABC News, spoke about the strain her career placed on her family. She has twin 5-year-old girls and a son who is 14 or 15.

“It’s a sacrifice for our own personal time and our families and the people around us,” she said in the NASA interview. “But I do think it’s worth it because if you don’t explore and take risks and go do all these things they everything will stay the same.”

In an in-flight news conference aboard Discovery last summer, she talked about waiting nearly 10 years for her first space flight. “It’s been a long wait, but it’s worth the wait,” she said.

NASA astronauts often have nicknames, at least among their crewmates and Mission Control. Aboard Discovery last July, Nowak and crewmate Stephanie Wilson were known as “the Robochicks” because they operated the shuttle’s robotic arm that checked the spacecraft for damage.

While on the international space station, Nowak’s crewmates sometimes had to duck to avoid her ponytail, which floated out during weightlessness.

In court early Tuesday, looking downcast, Nowak spoke only to respond, “Yes,” when asked whether she understood the conditions of her release.

A smiling, put-together woman in her NASA photos, her police mug shot showed a fatigued, haggard face with scraggly hair, seemingly destined to become the object of public ridicule. On Tuesday morning, it was shown on MSNBC’s “Imus in the Morning” next to the oft-posted mug shot of actor Nick Nolte after his DUI arrest.

Oefelein, a 41-year-old Navy commander nicknamed “Billy-O” by his comrades, trained with Nowak but never flew with her. He piloted a Discovery mission in December to the space station where astronauts rewired the outpost, installed a new $11 million section and dropped off a new American crew member.

Oefelein is unmarried but has two children. He began his aviation career as a teenager, flying floatplanes in Alaska.

As a child, he and his brother spent hours flying model plans with their father and attending air shows. And old photo taken of him at age 8 shows him standing next to a NASA jet.

“I love my time flying,” he told The Associated Press last year before his Discovery mission in December. “This is another fortunate opportunity I’ve been blessed with.”

The Orlando Sentinel reported Shipman, 30, is an engineer assigned to the 45th Launch Support Squadron at Patrick air base, and a Federal Aviation Administration pilot directory indicates she is certified as a student pilot.

Nowak spent much of the day in glass-fronted cell of about 80 square feet, by herself and under constant observation, said Allen Moore, a spokesman for the Orange County jail.

Chief astronaut Steve Lindsey, who flew with Nowak to the space station last July aboard Discovery, and fellow astronaut Chris Ferguson attended the hearing.

“Our primary concern is her health and well-being and that she get through this,” Lindsey told reporters afterward. “Her status (with the astronaut corps) has not changed.”

Ferguson said he was “perplexed” by Nowak’s alleged actions.

An expert familiar with the psychological screening process NASA uses for its astronauts said she could not explain Nowak’s behavior and stressed the interview process “only looks at the past” and can’t predict future behavior.

At least one retired astronaut, Jerry Linenger, said the space agency should re-examine its psychological screening process. With NASA talking about going to Mars, a 2 1/2-year trip, it would be dangerous for someone to “snap like this” during the mission, he said.

“An astronaut is probably the most studied human being by the time you go through your testing, your training,” Linenger said. “I think there’s still a lot of unknowns out there.”

However, Dr. Patricia Santy, a psychiatrist in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a former NASA flight surgeon who once helped screen astronauts, said, “People change.

“They can develop psychological problems at any stage of the way. Perhaps that’s part of it. Perhaps it’s just, love triangles occur in offices that you and I work in all the time.”

Santy stressed she did not know the details of Nowak’s evaluation. But speaking generally, she said that while astronauts are extraordinary people, “they put their flight boots on one foot at a time, after all. They have marital problems, they have problems with their kids, they have problems at work.”

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