Exclusive: Astronaut Love Triangle Victim 'Thought ... She Was Going to Murder Me'

Colleen Shipman tells story behind astronaut love triangle that turned violent.

February 17, 2011, 1:53 PM

Feb. 18, 2011 — -- Former NASA Astronaut Lisa Nowak made media tidal waves in 2007 when she was arrested at the Orlando International Airport on suspicion she attacked her perceived romantic rival.

As the details emerged, the story became almost legendary: Nowak made a 900-mile drive from her home in Houston to Orlando, stalking her victim through the airport in a disguise and later attacking her with pepper spray.

Nowak later pled guilty to charges of felony burglary by conveyance -- for reaching into Shipman's car during the attack -- and misdemeanor battery.

Most notably, the accusation that Nowak drove the entire distance wearing diapers to avoid bathroom breaks was almost too much for the late night comedy circuit to handle.

Yet lost to some in the bizarre tale was the victim, Colleen Shipman.

CLICK HERE to see photos of Shipman, Nowak and Oefelein.

Shipman was 29 when she met astronaut Bill Oefelein at an Orlando, Fla., house party. Little did she know that the 2006 encounter would do more than just begin an other-worldly relationship. It also would kick-start a chain of events that would land her in the middle of a bizarre astronaut love triangle.

For the first time, she is sharing her story of the events with "20/20."

"He was just a charming, handsome, very polite man, and he started talking to me," Shipman told anchor Chris Cuomo in an exclusive interview.

According to Shipman, the two hit it off immediately. Oefelein was a mere month away from joining a rare, celebrated group of heroes who voyaged into space.

What Shipman didn't know was that Oefelein also had unfinished business with another astronaut -- one with whom he'd been having an affair for two years, Lisa Marie Nowak.

Oefelein mentioned to her that he had been seeing someone else but had broken it off, according to Shipman. As far as she was concerned, the affair was a thing of the past.

"He didn't mention any names or anything, and he said, 'I had this talk with her and we're going to remain friends. But there's no romance there or anything,'" Shipman said.

'Some Crazy Lady Showing Up at My Door'

Shipman even joked with Oefelein, she said, asking him if she had to worry about a scorned lover showing up at her house.

"Hey, is there gonna be some crazy lady showing up at my door, you know -- trying to kill me? And, he was like, 'No, you know, you don't have to worry about that,'" she said.

"He told her that he wanted to be exclusive with Colleen Shipman," Sam Gwynn, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, told "20/20."

Oefelein and Nowak met two years earlier during winter training exercises in Canada. They began their affair shortly afterward. Though the timeline isn't clear, Oeflein says that he was divorced when the affair began. But Nowak was still married, making their actions illegal in the military. Nowak carried their secret with her as she prepared for her own launch into space in the summer of 2006.

The pressure of preparing for space flight, the affair and, reportedly, Nowak's own crumbling home situation may have been enough to take its toll on a woman who appeared, on the outside, superhuman.

"I would think that the stressors that she had, while having to be this super-mom taking care of three kids at the same time, gearing up for a mission that was very much in the public eye in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, would be extraordinarily stressful," said Dr. Paul Siegel, a psychologist and professor at SUNY-Purchase.

"Add into this now, starting in 2004, a very intense and emotional affair," Gwynn added.

For two years, they carried on their affair until Oefelein met Shipman and ended his romance with Nowak.

Gwynn covered the story extensively, penning the article, "Lust in Space," for Texas Monthly Magazine.

"If Oefelein thought Nowak was fine being downgraded from lover to just friend, he was delusional," Gwynn said.

"She was not fine with anything," Gwynn said of Nowak. "She was extremely in love with him."

A letter Nowak sent to Oefelein's mother around the time she was finalizing her own divorce, obtained by "20/20," may indicate how deeply invested she was in the relationship with Oefelein.

"I love him more than I knew possible," Nowak wrote. "Thank you very much for being there for me and us!"

"It was obvious that she believed that they were going to have a future together, until Colleen came along," Siegel said.

Steamy E-Mails From Space

Shipman said she was oblivious to the back story.

That December, she accompanied Oefelein's family to watch as he rocketed into outer orbit, cheering his blastoff from the grassy banks of Cape Canaveral.

With the fury of that rocket blasting off, their love blossomed. Shipman said they kept in touch while Oefelein was in space through, at times, steamy e-mail correspondence. Oefelein even went so far as to call Shipman from the shuttle.

"I didn't recognize the phone number on the caller ID so I just let the voicemail get it," Shipman said. "It was him, and he was calling me from the space station. I didn't even know that was possible and I didn't answer it!"

The message, which Shipman shared with "20/20," was brief but in it, Oefelein made clear that seeing her was his first priority upon landing.

Had Oefelein decided to call his own apartment, Nowak may have answered.

According to police, she still had a key and the passwords to his computer. Sometime while he was in space, she let herself in.

"Lisa let herself in, and looked into his computer and saw not only some of the steamy e-mails but she also found a flight itinerary," Gwynn said.

Shipman and Oefelein rendezvoused in Houston after he returned from space and, according to Shipman, things couldn't have been better.

"It was a celebration. We were pretty much inseparable once he got back," she told Cuomo.

Shipman left to return to Orlando on Feb. 4, 2007. Little did she know that Lisa Nowak had left earlier that night in a small BMW. In her possession was Shipman's flight information taken from Oefelein's computer, a knife, a BB gun, rubber tubing, a hammer, pepper spray and directions to Shipman's house.

"I really thought for sure she was going to murder me," Shipman said.

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.

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