Feb. 17, 2011 — -- It was an out-of-this-world love triangle that launched a bizarre assault: In February 2007, astronaut Lisa Nowak attacked Air Force officer Colleen Shipman with pepper spray at a Florida airport parking lot. Behind the attack was Nowak's jealousy over Shipman's three-month romance with astronaut William Oefelein, Nowak's former lover. Nowak later pled guilty to one felony and one misdemeanor charge associated with the attack.
The details of the attack were sensational. To get to Shipman, Nowak drove some 900 miles across five states. Surveillance cameras caught Nowak dressed in a trench coat and wig as she shadowed her prey at Orlando International Airport, where Shipman had just gotten off a flight. In a duffel bag at the scene of the crime, police found a variety of weapons, including a two-pound mallet, a 9-millimeter semi-automatic replica BB gun and surgical tubing.
But one particular detail took the attack from headlines to punchlines. During launch and re-entry astronauts don't have time for bathroom breaks, so under their space suits, during training and real missions, you would find a Maximum Absorption Garment -- what we call adult diapers on earth. A police report on the Florida attack said Nowak told a detective that she used diapers to avoid making pit stops during her road trip to confront Shipman.
Watch the full story Friday on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.
Late night comics made Lisa Nowak and her alleged diaper use a comedic staple for days.
"Imagine wearing a diaper all day without changing it. Must have felt like one of Britney Spears kids," joked Jay Leno. "As you know she went to court yesterday and was released on her own incontinence."
"A woman who's willing to wear a diaper so I don't have to pull over in the car? I would marry that woman!" quipped Jimmy Kimmel. Click here for more from late night comics.
But for all the buzz, Nowak would ultimately contest the diaper story.
Orlando Detective William Becton was the first to discover the diapers when he opened a trash bag inside Lisa Nowak's car and found two used diapers. In his charging affidavit he wrote, "… I then asked Mrs. Nowak why she had the baby diapers. Mrs. Nowak said that she did not want to stop and use the restroom, so, she used the diapers to collect her urine."
Detective Becton secured plenty of evidence from the car, but did not photograph or collect the two used diapers from the back seat of Nowak's car, or the "twenty to thirty unused diapers" that he found in the trunk. This omission allowed some wiggle room for Nowak's lawyer.
The Lawyer's Denial
''The biggest lie in this preposterous tale that has been told is that my client drove from Houston, Texas, to Orlando, Florida, nonstop, wearing a diaper. That is an absolute fabrication. There were toddler-size diapers in her car when she was arrested, but they were several years old," Lykkebak said.
He said that Nowak and her family, including two young toddlers, had used the diapers when Houston was evacuated in 2005 during Hurricane Rita.
"It's not a big deal. It's a simple matter," Lykkebak said.
Police, meanwhile, found that Nowak had in fact made a pit stop during her trip to confront Shipman. They discovered a receipt in her car showing that, using an alias and paying cash, she had stopped at a Days Inn more than halfway between Houston and Orlando.
The matter of diapers or no diapers -- children's or adult -- did not influence the legal proceedings, but nearly four years later it happens to be the single detail that keeps this love triangle in our social consciousness.
Lisa Nowak has not granted any interviews since her arrest and did not address the diaper question during a short press conference after she pled guilty to felony burglary and misdemeanor battery in November 2009.
But this past summer, Nowak did apparently speak out on the diaper issue when she appeared in front of a naval review board charged with deciding her future rank and benefits. According to reporters present at the Aug. 20 hearing, the government asked Nowak about the diaper she was reportedly wearing during the drive from Houston. Nowak testified she was not wearing the diaper but that it had been in the car since an evacuation drill during Hurricane Rita, more than a year before.
We may never know the truth about the diapers in Nowak's car. Was it an unfortunate coincidence that Lisa Nowak had diapers in her car? Did the detective misunderstand Nowak's admission or did she really use the children's diapers that were already in her car to avoid rest stops?
To the victim of the attack the diaper mystery seems to be inconsequential. Colleen Shipman says she wishes people would focus on the attack itself.
"I don't mean to be offensive or anything but that's pretty superficial. I mean, don't you think?" Shipman told "20/20."
"The woman committed a crime and the headlines are saying that she wore a diaper."
Click here to watch Colleen Shipman take Chris Cuomo back to the scene of the attack, revealing harrowing details of her ordeal never before shared. Plus: The surprising end to the astronaut love triangle.