Astronaut Charged with Attempted Murder
ORLANDO, Fla. – She was the Robochick. He was Billy-O. 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. Then prosecutors upped the charge to attempted murder, basing it on the weapons and other items they said police had found with Nowak or in her car: pepper spray, a BB-gun, a new steel mallet, knife and rubber tubing.
Nowak was released from jail on $25,500 bail and ordered to wear a monitoring device.
Her lawyer, Donald Lykkebak, took issue with the most serious charges.
“In the imaginations of the police officers, they extend these facts out into areas where the facts can’t be supported,” Lykkebak said.
NASA put Nowak on a 30-day leave and removed her from mission duties. Agency 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.”
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 (OH’-fuh-line) had something “more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship.”
Neither Oefelein nor Shipman could be reached for comment Tuesday, 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.
Nowak and her husband separated several weeks ago after 19 years of marriage, according to a statement put out by her family.
“Personally, Lisa is an extremely caring and dedicated mother to her three children,” the statement said. “Considering both her personal and professional life, these alleged events are completely out of character and have come as a tremendous shock to our family.”
Accustomed to wearing astronaut diapers during the space shuttle’s launch and return to Earth, Nowak wore them on the drive to Orlando so she would not have to make bathroom stops, police said.
There, according to police, 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.
A police affidavit made public Tuesday said Nowak had “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.”
Lykkebak said that Nowak only wanted to talk to Shipman. Asked about the weapons, he said, “You can sit and speculate all day.”
The judge also ordered Nowak to stay away from Shipman and to wear an electronic monitoring device upon returning to her home in Houston.
A vague profile began to emerge of Nowak, who 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, then 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.
A smiling, put-together woman in her NASA photos, Nowak’s police mug shot showed a fatigued, haggard face with scraggly hair.
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