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For NASA Doctors, a Difficult Test

February 7, 2007

American astronauts undergo a psychological assessment when they join NASA but face no further evaluations during their careers unless issues arise during their annual flight physicals, the space agency said yesterday.

“No other psychological assessments are done for shuttle astronauts after that initial one unless a concern is raised,” said NASA public affairs officer Katherine Trinidad.

Navy Capt. Lisa M. Nowak’s problems had slipped below NASA’s radar and surfaced Monday in a bizarre meltdown and alleged assault on Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman in an Orlando airport parking lot. She is believed to be the only astronaut ever to be charged with a felony.

“There is no instance like this [that] I’m aware of in the history of the astronaut corps,” said Roger Launius, chairman of the space history division at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

In general, the screening system has worked.

There have been blowups and infidelities, described in memoirs and books such as The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s account of the Mercury astronauts. But given the length and intensity of the astronauts’ mental and physical training, the risks they take and the toll it can take on their families, Launius said, the real news might be that such personal train wrecks haven’t happened before.

“This is a different sort of story, and everybody’s looking at it right now,” Launius said.

Trinidad said she could not immediately provide more information about the initial psychological “assessment” that astronauts undergo.

She said astronauts training for a long deployment aboard the International Space Station do receive a “slightly different assessment … since they are in space a longer amount of time.” But she was unable to give specifics.

Working astronauts have access to NASA flight surgeons who make sure they remain fit. The doctors can refer astronauts to a behavioral health and performance provider at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

No one has publicly ascribed a psychological malady to Nowak. But her behavior suggests a syndrome seen among high achievers, called narcissistic personality disorder, said Dr. Jack Vaeth, a Maryland psychiatrist.

Thwarted in their ambitions or conquests, people accustomed to success, adulation and entitlement can slide into a rage or a disastrous series of decisions that can bring down their careers. His favorite example? Bill Clinton.

Vaeth teaches and practices at the Sheppard Pratt Health System hospital in Towson. He also has a private practice in Annapolis. He has no special knowledge of Nowak’s case but plenty of experience with self-centered achievers.

“Certain professions are made up of narcissistic personalities, although maybe not disordered ones,” Vaeth said. They include doctors, lawyers and CEOs, “high achievers who … feel ‘I have an edge on the world, and society rewards me for it.’

“They were always the teacher’s pet, their parents’ favorite child,” he said, “so of course they’re going to want to continue that. … Everything they undertake, they’re winners. And even when they lose, they learn to win better next time.”

In time, they come to believe that they’re entitled, invincible, “able to exploit others without being called to the mat for it.”

When he lectures about the syndrome, he points to the former president.

“The whole time in the Oval Office with Monica [Lewinsky], you and I would be scared to death [of getting caught],” Vaeth said. “He’s thinking, ‘They’ll never believe I did it.’”

When a narcissist’s achievement or conquest is thwarted, he or she can fall into a rage, Vaeth said. “When the right buttons are pushed, they explode.”

The venomous exchange recently between developer Donald Trump and comedian Rosie O’Donnell struck him as a “wonderful example” of two narcissistic personalities blowing up over each other’s taunts.

“Both are fading; their ratings are going down. They’re a perfect pair to explode on one another to get attention,” he said.

Nowak, 43, who is married with three kids, is the epitome of a high achiever.

She is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate with master’s degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering; a decorated Navy veteran and test pilot who has logged more than 1,500 hours in 30 types of aircraft, according to NASA.

An astronaut since 1996, she flew on the shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station in July. At home, her interests run from growing African violets to shooting skeet.

Nowak allegedly told Orlando police that her relationship with astronaut and shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein was “more than a working relationship, but less than a romantic relationship.”

Romantic attachments were a concern in the astronaut corps, as in many other professions in the 1970s, when women began training and working closely with men. But Launius said the worst fears of sexual tension and illicit relationships did not materialize.

“There have been psychological studies to look at that in the context of long-duration missions,” he said. “But I’m not aware of any instance when anyone went over the edge.”

Orlando police say Nowak apparently did. When she came to believe that Oefelein was involved with another woman, she tracked her rival to Florida and, armed and disguised, confronted and assaulted her in an airport parking lot, police say.

Vaeth said the incident looks like a “narcissistic rage” that would be hard for others to foresee and prevent. To head it off, “you’d have to be rather close to that person.”

Closer, perhaps, than NASA’s flight surgeons.

frank.roylance@baltsun.com


For NASA Doctors a Difficult Test


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