The Evidence Against Lisa Nowak


April 11, 2007 — -- It's not your normal packing list for a trip: BB gun, knife, rubber gloves, drilling hammer and a floppy disk with the bondage photos. Bondage photos?

Police recovered these items from former astronaut Lisa Nowak's car.

Nowak, a married mother of three children, is accused of attempting to kidnap Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman earlier this year.

The list of items recovered by police includes the black curly wig Nowak wore when she disguised herself before the kidnapping attempt. She carried two hats, a baseball cap and a black fedora. The purse Nowak took to Florida was a very practical beige canvas bag, with multiple pockets for organization.

Nowak stashed the BB gun, a knife, a flashlight and pepper spray in the bag, along with her lipstick and mascara. She had badges and pins from STS 121, the shuttle mission she flew last summer. The floppy disk and some memory sticks hold photos and drawings of a woman in bondage. Investigators haven't revealed the identity of the woman, but they do say the bondage photos don't seem to be directly related to the case.

This evidence elaborates on the documents released last month, which showed that Nowak had discovered e-mail correspondence detailing a relationship between Shipman and a man Nowak was having an affair with, fellow astronaut Bill Oefelein.

In the e-mails, Shipman wrote to Oefelein, "Will have to control myself when I see you. First, the urge will be to rip your clothes off, throw you on the ground, and love the hell out of you."

What has emerged from all the evidence is a paper trail that details a love affair between Nowak and Oefelein that he thought was over, but that she clearly didn't. Oefelein told police he had been having an affair with Nowak , "for some time." They had worked together on several projects at the Johnson Space Center.

Oefelein then met another woman, Shipman, at the Kennedy Space Center last fall while he trained for the last shuttle flight, STS 116. He continued to date Nowak while becoming more involved with Shipman, according to his statement to Orlando Police Department investigators.

Shipman thought she was the only one dating Oefelein. "He told me he had a relationship with a lady that he works with, and that the relationship was over and he had told that lady that the relationship was over. I asked him if he made it clear to her that it was over and he said yes."

When asked by police if Oefelein ever mentioned having problems with Nowak, Shipman replied, "I asked him, 'Are you sure that she's OK with this? Because you know how these things go,' and I said, 'Is there gonna be some crazy lady showing up at my door trying to kill me?' and he said, 'no, no, no, she's not like that, she's fine with it, she's happy for me.'"

Each revelation of evidence, along with the expectation of more documents to be released, means the story is far from over.

Nowak was fired from NASA last month, and has been assigned to duty at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas. It is also highly unlikely that Oefelein, who is still an active duty astronaut, will be assigned to another flight.

The space agency wants to focus on the remaining shuttle flights to finish building the International Space Station, and to fix the Hubble Space Telescope.

Nowak, in an official interview with NASA, posted before her first and only flight, said the training for a mission meant "a sacrifice for our own personal time and our families, and the people around us."

Dr. Jonathan Clark's wife, Laurel, one of the seven astronaut who died in the Columbia Shuttle accident in 2003, was in the same astronaut class as Nowak. "The family separation, and the pedestals astronauts are often put on have the potential to take someone as gifted and talented and fundamentally nice as Lisa Nowak and turn her into someone that is really not her," said Clark.

Clark, a NASA flight surgeon, said the stress is hard on astronaut marriages. "There has been a lot of marital infidelity in the astronaut corps [and] a huge number of divorces, even in these very educated and talented folks. But you have to wonder what stresses folks are under in that environment."

Ellen Ochoa, the director of flight crew operations for the Johnson Space Center, said, "We are going to be asking ourselves, is there more that we should be doing postflight?"

NASA has established a commission to see just what the agency should be doing to track the mental health of its astronaut corps. This month, the members are traveling to the Johnson Space Center to determine how the signs of trouble with Nowak were missed, and they'll report their findings to NASA administrator Michael Griffinin June.

At a coffee shop near the Johnson Space Center, as customers read the headlines "Bondage Photos," some wondered when the scandal would ever die down. Not anytime soon. Nowak's trial is scheduled for September.

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