We may never know exactly what was in Lisa Marie Nowak’s heart—what she thought, felt, believed, or dreamed. How desperately she loved or how compulsively she hated. Or why she would do something, entirely of her own free will, that was guaranteed to ruin the extraordinary life she had spent 43 years meticulously crafting. Maybe someday she’ll write a memoir or, sunk in shame and isolation, sell her story to Hollywood and offer up her social and professional suicide for money and another kind of fame. As time passes, there may be little else for her to do.
Until then, we are left to construct our own dossier, composed solely of the hard, objective facts of the narrative. We begin with the most basic of these: Lisa was an astronaut. For more than a decade she was part of that cold-blooded, nerveless band of overachievers that the rest of the world looks upon as the embodiment of human perfection. She flew a single mission on the space shuttle, in the summer of 2006. She is a mom. She is quite thin—five feet four inches tall and 110 pounds—with light-brown shoulder-length hair and bangs; with makeup on and her hair done, she can look pretty in a homespun, American sort of way. Although she is quiet and, as you will soon see, compartmentalized, the personality she showed to the world was one that everyone liked and admired: cheerful, diligent, smart, caring, nice, brave.
Against that backdrop, consider a letter she wrote in January 2007 that might help explain, to people who know nothing else about her, her shocking actions in the early-morning hours of February 5. It was addressed to a Mrs. Oefelein, the mother of her lover, a 42-year-old former Navy pilot and fellow astronaut named Bill Oefelein. Their affair had begun three years earlier, coinciding with the end of his marriage and the coming apart of hers. In spite of such stormy, emotional times, the letter was hopeful and happy. It suggested that Lisa and Bill were about to start a new life together, that the trials and the secrecy of the preceding few years would soon be over. “Bill is absolutely the best person I’ve ever known and I love him more than I knew possible,” Lisa wrote. “Your kindness [in] supporting us even under such circumstances as have existed in the past is nothing short of extraordinary. Fortunately that past situation is finally coming to a close with formal separation and separate living arrangements accomplished, and I am in the process of completing all the official divorce paperwork. It is long overdue, but it is finally here and I am very much looking forward to getting to know you even better.”
If the takeaway was that everything was going to work out fine, the reality was otherwise. Lisa was catastrophically misguided. Even as she was writing to Mrs. Oefelein, Bill was in the process of dumping her for a girlish thirty-year-old Air Force captain from Cape Canaveral, Florida, named Colleen Shipman. A few weeks later, he would tell Lisa that he and Colleen had decided to become “exclusive.” It is perhaps a measure of Bill’s capacity for self-delusion that he believed Lisa was “accepting” of this (as he later told police). He was wrong. A week later, wearing a diaper and carrying a hunting knife, a BB gun, plastic gloves, a steel mallet, a can of pepper spray, and six feet of rubber tubing, she would drive nine hundred miles from her home in Houston to the Orlando airport. There, at 3:50 a.m., in a wig and a hooded trench coat, she would assault Colleen in a parking lot with pepper spray. At that moment, Lisa Nowak became globally infamous as the love-crazed “astronut” who had attacked her rival. She became what no astronaut had ever before become: a punch line.
If the story of the Nowak-Oefelein-Shipman love triangle allowed an unusual and occasionally bizarre view of the traditionally opaque NASA subculture, it offered something else too: a peek inside the world of America’s space agency in the dying days of the shuttle program and in the shadow of a disastrous crash— Columbia, in 2003—that illustrated in excruciating detail just how fundamentally purposeless, money guzzling, overpressurized, and phenomenally dangerous the shuttle was 26 years after its first mission. Columbia, in fact, shattered NASA’s bureaucratic nerves; it spawned an astonishing report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) that concluded that the shuttle program was still little more than a perilous and costly experiment and that the crash was caused as much by NASA’s deeply flawed culture as it was by the piece of foam from the fuel tank that fatally damaged the craft’s heat shield. The report also laid bare the shuttle’s stark failure to fulfill almost all of NASA’s promises about the craft’s uses and capabilities.
If you’re like many Americans, shuttle missions occupy a place in your consciousness somewhere between Arena Football League scores and the latest headlines from Belgium. Except when one blows up, of course—but even then, most people feel that there’s something almost boringly routine about our trips to space. Nothing could be further from the truth. The shuttle is, in actuality, a horrifically fragile and pathologically balky patchwork of far-flung technologies, many of which are a generation old. To get its three million pieces into orbit without exploding or disintegrating requires an astonishing amount of money and effort: as much as $1 billion and 20,000 workers every time it blasts off, even though the shuttles themselves are reused. “You should hold your breath every time it goes up,” says Wayne Hale, the shuttle program’s manager. That gigantic price tag is one of the main reasons that America, after conquering the moon, has been stuck in low earth orbit for almost 35 years.
The crash of Columbia caused two things to happen. The first was President George W. Bush’s decision to stop flying the shuttle in 2010—the biggest and most