Lust in Space
Laugh all you want at Lisa Nowak, the lovesick astronaut in the diaper, but there’s nothing even remotely funny about the shuttle program’s bleak future—or the sorry state of NASA.
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 shattering change at NASA since the end of the Apollo program in the seventies. The second was a sudden, manic drive not only to get back into space but to do it without any more crashes or the harrowing close calls that have become more and more common in recent years. This was accompanied by an equally peremptory demand to finish the $100 billion International Space Station—another purposeless project that, ironically, NASA soon plans to abandon.
In the middle of all of this quantum change sat Lisa Nowak, a mission specialist on STS-121, the thirty-second flight of the shuttle Discovery and the second shuttle to fly after Columbia. Her personal and professional life was deeply etched by the accident, which took the life of one of her best friends; her own mission in space was obsessed with both the causes of the crash and the ways NASA might avoid future disasters by making repairs in space. (It did not escape notice either that her assault on Colleen happened a few days after the fourth anniversary of the Columbia tragedy.) She and her crew were critical components of that final phase of the shuttle’s tortured life, in which everything had to be done at once, everything had to be perfect, and all goals had to be achieved.
Her arrest rocked NASA to its foundation. It did so in ways that surprised even insiders who had been through the shock waves of Challenger (the first shuttle disaster, in 1986) and Columbia. The reason was rooted in the fact that, for all of its intergalactic operations, NASA is, at bottom, a myth-spinning public relations machine, a giant image factory whose principal goal is to hype metaphors of human frontiers—both physical and intellectual—in exchange for enormous sums of taxpayer money. The Apollo program, for example, was in many ways the greatest technological achievement in human history, but it was made possible by a slick, imagery-infused media campaign that sprung unlimited amounts of cash from Congress.
The Lisa Nowak fiasco was all about losing control of the myth, about NASA’s helplessness to shield her—or itself—in the face of the global media firestorm. On the morning of February 6, what hit the newswires was the pinched, frightened, supplicating, and in some very profound way, sad face of the woman who had driven nine hundred miles wearing diapers to confront her rival. The diapers, we now know, changed everything. They sparked loud, involuntary national guffaws and thousands of jokes. Headlines like “Dark Side of the Loon” and “In Space No One Can Hear You Pee” proliferated. Talk show hosts couldn’t resist the easy target. “As you know,” snickered Jay Leno, “she went to court yesterday and was released in her own incontinence.”
While NASA frantically tried to field thousands of calls from reporters who wanted to know about government-issue diapers and steamy e-mails to and from outer space, the now-familiar media circus descended on Clear Lake (at least until Anna Nicole Smith’s sudden death, on February 8, propelled them over to Mexia). Satellite trucks and TV crews filled the cul-de-sac where Lisa and her family lived. Inside Edition, the Wall Street Journal, and every media outlet in between begged for interviews. FedEx deliveries from Dr. Phil arrived at the Nowak house. A few days after Lisa’s arrest, the price of an autographed photo of her on eBay hit $10,000.
For the insular and fragile NASA culture, still recovering from the shock of Columbia, this was a sort of extended nightmare. In the aftermath of the crash, there had been real psychological trauma at the agency: According to one NASA source, there were “several nervous breakdowns” and, among support personnel, one suicide. It was seen as such a serious problem that therapists were unleashed. “We have this immense loss that we can never undo,” says Paul Hill, the deputy director of mission operations for the space shuttle. “There was collective and individual counseling, and we brought in various cultural coaches and psychologist types who spent time talking to our folks and boring into our culture.” Now, in the wake of this crisis of confidence, came an apparently real case of mental illness in an astronaut who had not only flown the previous year but was to be the voice of Mission Control for the next scheduled shuttle flight. “I hate to say this,” a public affairs officer at NASA told me shortly after the incident, “but things are so bad around here it almost feels like Columbia.”
It did not help matters that Lisa’s story of love and rejection was particularly dramatic and salacious. Like most astronauts, she had a résumé that looked nearly superhuman, and it was the very flawlessness of her record that afforded the perfect setup line for the epic tale it took the media about six seconds to spin out: American hero shamed, disgraced, brought low. She was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Naval Test Pilot School. She was an aerospace engineer, a specialist in electronic warfare. In space, a mere seven months before, she had successfully manipulated the shuttle’s robotic arm during the crew’s space walks. And then everything came crashing to earth.
The events that took place in Orlando had their origins in 2004, when Lisa Nowak and Bill Oefelein began their affair. At the time, both had been married to other people for sixteen years. Lisa had a twelve-year-old son and twin three-year-old daughters. Bill had a fourteen-year-old son and a ten-year-old daughter. They were both in the Navy. Both had the rank of commander. As astronauts, they worked and trained together in the cloistered world inside the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, sharing desk space on the sixth floor of an office building. They once spent eleven days together in Canada doing cold-weather survival training.
Their home lives, meanwhile, deteriorated. Bill’s wife, Michaella, a striking redhead, divorced him in 2005. Lisa and her husband, Richard, separated, intending to divorce, in early 2007. Once Bill was single, he moved to an apartment and gave Lisa a key. They spent time together at work and at play: They were on the same cycling team and trained together for races. From all available evidence, it was an intense, sexual, and highly secretive love affair.
The trouble started in November 2006, when Bill met Colleen Shipman during a training mission at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Colleen, who worked for the Air Force testing hardware for spaceflights, was attractive, petite, full of energy, and well liked by her neighbors, who called her the Little General. She had graduated from Penn State University in 2002 with degrees in German and chemical engineering. In spite of the distance between them, they traveled to see each other on weekends and quickly fell in love. When Bill flew his December shuttle mission, she sent him an e-mail in outer space with a subject line that read: “I need a rubdown.” The message itself said: “Will have to control myself when I see you. First urge will be to rip your clothes off, throw you on the ground and love the hell out of you.” Back on earth, his e-mails to her tended to be sedate, as in, “I need to see you. I am having Colleen withdrawals. Must see Colleen.” She was less restrained: “Lots of love coming your way . . . and kisses and a great big giant hug with my legs around you.”
Bill insisted to Colleen that he had ended his affair with Lisa, whom she had never met. “When he told me he had this relationship and that he broke it off with her,” Colleen later told the Orlando police, “I asked him, ‘Are you sure that she’s okay with this? Because you know how these things go.’ And I said, ‘Is there gonna be some crazy lady showing up at my door trying to kill me?’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, she’s not like that. She’s fine with it. She’s happy for me.’” In fact, it was January before Bill finally brought himself to tell Lisa that his feelings for her had changed. “I told her that I had met Colleen and I had fallen in love and I was wanting to pursue an exclusive relationship with Colleen,” he told the Orlando police. According to people who know her, Lisa’s reaction was purely in character: controlled, unemotional. “She seemed a little disappointed, but she seemed to be accepting of that” was how Bill put it. Still, she persisted in phoning him every day even though, Bill said, he “wasn’t always receptive to the phone call.” Her messages were “nice and, you know, extremely friendly and not adversarial,” he explained, “just indicative of the type of person she is.” He had come to believe that he and Lisa could coexist as good friends. They continued to plan training rides with their bicycle club and flights together in the T-38 jets in which all astronauts must log a certain minimum number of flying hours (he would be in the front seat flying the plane, she in the back; contrary to media reports, she is not a test pilot nor any kind of pilot).
Lisa, of course, had not accepted any of this. That same month, she had split with her husband. She was more deeply in love with Bill than ever and believed her future was with him. In some of the accounts that followed her arrest, there was speculation as to why she’d “snapped.” But snapping hardly describes what she did after Bill broke up with her, which was to carefully and even obsessively plan, over a period of at least three weeks, her confrontation with Colleen, all the while preparing for her job as the “capcom” (capsule communicator)—the voice of Mission Control—for the next shuttle mission, at the time scheduled to launch in March of this year but since postponed to June.
Using her key to Bill’s apartment, she had broken into his computer and found Colleen’s travel itinerary for a visit to Houston from February 1 to February 4. She also found those steamy e-mails. She concocted a plan: She would drive to Orlando, where Colleen was landing at 1 a.m. on February 5 after her trip to Houston. She would confront her. She printed out maps of her driving route, the Orlando airport, and the neighborhood in Cape Canaveral where Colleen lived. She made obsessively detailed, handwritten lists of the things she would bring: plastic gloves, glasses, makeup, sneakers (black, size 8-9), black sweats, a sharp knife, a gun, binoculars, a baseball cap, and food, water, and a cooler for the car. On February 3 she set off, wearing a special space diaper known as a mag (shorthand for “maximum absorption garment”), which astronauts use when they have to be in space suits for an extended period of time, such as on the launchpad. Lisa later told the police she wore them to avoid having to take bathroom breaks. By the time she arrived in Orlando, after stopping for the night in DeFuniak Springs, Florida, and registering at the hotel as “Linda Turner,” she had used two of them.
Colleen, meanwhile, was having something of an odd weekend with Bill in Houston. For one thing, she had discovered Lisa’s bike in his apartment, which had angered her. She had confronted him about it and made him promise to get rid of it. “It made me very uncomfortable,” she later said. “It made me want to pull away from this relationship … because it made me think that he didn’t quite cut his ties, maybe.” Something else caused her to be even more suspicious. While the two were lying in bed, after dinner and drinks and a night out, Bill had called her Lisa.
Colleen landed in Orlando shortly after 1 a.m. She learned that her bags would not arrive for nearly two and a half hours, so she decided to wait. There is a certain Warner Bros. cartoon aspect to what happened next. Unbeknownst to her, Lisa (who had never met her but knew what she looked like from a photograph Bill had) was there, surveilling her, wearing a hooded trench coat, round-rimmed red glasses, rolled-up blue jeans, black sneakers, and a black wig. There were very few people in the airport. At roughly 3:30, Colleen boarded an empty parking lot shuttle bus. Lisa followed, dressed so outlandishly that Colleen couldn’t help staring at her, then got off at Colleen’s stop and, as Colleen was getting into her car, came running across the parking lot. She tried to open the car door, then slapped at the window. “Can you help me, please?” she said. “My boyfriend was supposed to pick me up and he is not here. I’ve been traveling and it’s late. Can you give me a ride to the parking office?” Colleen replied, “No. If you need help, I’ll send someone to help you.” Lisa then asked to use her cell phone. When Colleen told her the battery was dead, Lisa said she could not hear her and started crying, so Colleen opened her window two inches. That was when Lisa sprayed her with pepper spray. “You bitch!” said Colleen, who then quickly drove away.
A few minutes later the police arrested Lisa, who was spotted trying to throw away a bag containing a loaded BB gun (which looked like a 9mm semiautomatic) and the wig; she was carrying another bag, containing the steel mallet and a four-inch buck knife. When asked what she’d planned to do with the weapons, Lisa said that she had not intended to hurt Colleen but wanted only to scare her into talking. If Colleen had refused, she’d planned to use the BB gun to force her to talk. She offered no explanation for the knife, the hammer, the rubber tubing, or the plastic gloves. Police also found bondage photos and drawings on a computer disk in her car, including images of a nude woman. Police said it was not clear who the woman was.
Later that day, Lisa was charged with attempted murder, attempted kidnapping, attempted burglary, battery, and destruction of evidence. No astronaut had ever been arrested before, let alone charged with felonies. At the time they added the attempted murder charge (which has since been dropped), the police made mention of “the detailed planning by Mrs. Nowak … the fact that she wore a disguise, her prolonged surveillance of the victim, the fact that Mrs. Nowak passed up numerous opportunities to contact the victim.” She was released on $25,500 bail, fitted with an ankle bracelet with a GPS device (so that any attempt to reenter the state of Florida would be detected), and led with her head covered to a hotel so that the media could not photograph her. The next day a car met her plane on the tarmac at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and deposited her at the neat, 3,100-square-foot $291,000 home northeast of NASA that she had once shared with a happy family. From there, joined by her parents, she peered out as the media storm gathered around her.
On March 7 NASA informed her that it would no longer employ her as an astronaut. “I called her last week, and she sounded pretty depressed to me,” shuttle pilot Mark Kelly, her crewmate on STS-121, told me three weeks after her arrest. “We are going to try to get together with her this week. She has nothing to do. She just sits in her house all day, every day.” She still officially works for the Navy, and it will ultimately decide what to do with her. “When NASA sent her the letter saying that it no longer needed her services,” Kelly said, “they were basically saying to the Navy, ‘Over to you.’ I imagine the Navy is just going to retire her, and then she is going to be unemployable, I would think, unless she can convince someone that she is fixed.”
In April she reported to the staff of the chief of Naval Air Training Command in Corpus Christi, where she is helping to develop training programs. Navy officials have said they will defer action against her (for, among other things, fraternizing with fellow officers) until after her criminal trial this September in Orlando.
In the fall of 2005, while I was working on another story, NASA gave me clearance to participate in an extraordinary piece of astronaut training: a shuttle maneuver known as a de-orbit burn. It involved strapping myself into a crew seat on the flight deck of the shuttle’s mission simulator and watching as the crew flipped the craft so that it flew upside down and backward, fired the twin orbital maneuvering system engines, and slowed the orbiter from 17,500 miles per hour to about 17,300—enough to cause it to fall out of orbit and reenter the earth’s atmosphere. The simulator replicates every detail and system of the real shuttle. In front of me were the pilot and commander; above them were projection screens in the windows that showed realistic images of earth and space. The crew belonged to mission number STS-121, which would eventually fly Discovery on July 4, 2006. The person seated next to me was mission specialist Lisa Nowak.
I was observing a small piece of her workweek: In flight training she would spend 50 or 55 hours a week in class and in various simulators (and another 15 doing administrative and other chores). She seemed intense, focused, not at all relaxed, and not entirely thrilled that a journalist was sitting next to her. People have described her as shy, and she did seem that way, though she shared in the casual jocularity of the crew. Mostly, she struck me—with her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, makeup-less and relatively cheerless—as all business. Maybe that was because the essence of simulator training is crisis. Instructors in another room deliberately create problems, usually in rapid sequence, and the crew has to figure out how to solve them. Sometimes these problems are unintentionally fatal, and the crew is “killed.” Sometimes they require small, simple solutions like flipping a switch or shutting down a pump.
On this day the instructors were throwing a string of power failures at the crew as it executed the de-orbit burn and reentry: first a minor one, then a larger one that caused the cockpit lights, among other systems, to go out. The way the astronauts solve these problems is strikingly low-tech: They all have checklists (bound stacks of paper with procedures for solving problems) and pencils, and the two mission specialists have knee boards to write on. As the crisis worsened, Lisa flipped furiously through her checklists, sometimes scribbling with her pencil and speaking a few clipped words to Commander Steve Lindsey. This went on for two hours, until we watched the coastline of the United States float up in the simulator’s windows and we “landed” in Florida. The de-orbit training was followed by a less intense but still quite serious debriefing with the instructors, who told them what they did right and wrong. As far as I could tell, they got most of it right. It occurred to me, when it was all over, that along the way we had duplicated all but the last few minutes of Columbia, which began its de-orbit burn at 8:15 a.m. on February 1, 2003, felt the first heat of reentry at 8:44, and disintegrated over Texas at 9:00, an event the crew was fully conscious of for about a minute.
The mission simulators in which Lisa and her crew were training had been built in the seventies, which tells you a good deal—though by no means all—about what is wrong with the shuttle program. It should be obvious to even casual observers that the program is stuck in the distant past. It is basically unchanged since the first shuttle flew, in 1981. The launch technology is almost exactly the same, the training of the astronauts is almost exactly the same, and the destination is always exactly the same: low earth orbit, something both Americans and Russians were able to do by the early sixties. “We are no longer living in anything resembling what we thought would be the Space Age,” Greg Klerkx wrote in Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age, his 2004 book. “There are no passenger spacecraft, no orbiting platforms for business or pleasure. There is no human spaceflight at all that anyone would call ordinary. No one has returned to the moon; no human has gone to Mars.” This is not all the agency’s fault. As the Columbia Accident Investigation Board put it, it is also the result of “the lack, over the past three decades, of any national mandate providing NASA a compelling mission requiring human presence in space.”
While NASA has made a number of remarkable advances in science and unmanned flight—including Voyager, the Hubble Space Telescope, the twin Mars rovers and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Cassini probe now flying by Titan, one of Saturn’s moons—the shuttle has failed at virtually everything we were assured it could do. It was supposed to make spaceflight both low cost and routine, with as many as 64 launches a year; handle the launches of military and commercial satellites; and be the catalyst for a return to deep-space exploration. It has done only one of those things—satellite delivery. Instead, it became an expensive, high-risk program that flew, on average, fewer than 5 times a year and worked only because prodigious amounts of money, manpower, and technology were brought to bear to make sure it went up each time without exploding or disintegrating. The program should have ended with the Challenger explosion in 1986; that it didn’t is testimony to the built-in inertia of a $145 billion public works project that let contracts in all fifty states and, over the years, created tens of thousands of jobs. In case you’re wondering, this is not some sort of dissident, minority view of the shuttle program. In 2005 NASA administrator Michael Griffin testified before a Senate committee that the shuttle was “inherently flawed” and then told a reporter for USA Today, “It is now commonly accepted that [that] was not the right path. We are now trying to change the path while doing as little damage as we can.” When asked if he felt the shuttle was a mistake, he replied, “My opinion is that it was. It was a design which was extremely aggressive and just barely possible.”
From the beginning, NASA sold Congress and the country on the idea that the shuttle was “operational,” meaning not the touchy, temperamental piece of experimental R & D that it really was. The shuttle was, and is, a lethal, jury-rigged assemblage meant to overcome what would twice be a fatal basic design: an orbiter bolted implausibly to a giant external fuel tank containing highly explosive liquid hydrogen and oxygen. It is situated in such a way that the orbiter’s fragile heat shield is fully exposed to falling debris, which occurs on every rocket launch. No matter how good NASA’s spin machine might be, rockets are still very dangerous things. Between 1988 and 2000, launches of various types of rockets failed 23 times. The two shuttle losses equate to one astronaut dead for every 8 flights (there have been a total of 117 flights since 1981). When I asked NASA’s shuttle manager Hale about the inherent dangers of the shuttle, he said, “Captain John Young [the commander of the Apollo 16 lunar-landing mission] is one of my heroes, and he put it this way: ‘You put some people on top of four million pounds of high explosives, you light the fuse, and in eight and a half minutes they are going eight times faster than a rifle bullet. What part of that sounds safe to you?’”
The shuttle is so dangerous, in fact, that it requires an almost complete disassembly and reassembly of its major parts each time it flies—a process that is not without its opportunity costs. It consumes so much of NASA’s dwindling budget that there has been little left to fund a replacement (since the mid-eighties, the agency has spent about $4 billion on a succession of false starts, including the X-33, the Delta Clipper, and the National Aerospace Plane). Indeed, many of the agency’s problems, including crew safety, turn out to be rooted in its declining investment in manned spaceflight. “The program’s budget was reduced by forty percent over the past decade,” said the CAIB report, “and repeatedly raided to make up for space station cost overruns.” The CAIB also pointed to wave after wave of downsizing and outsourcing, driven by NASA’s campaign to do things “faster, better, cheaper.”
The shuttle’s mission log, meanwhile, is full of close calls and chronic problems that started with its very first flight. A piece of the same type of insulating foam that doomed Columbia in 2003 had fallen off the external tank in 1982, knocking off three dozen thermal tiles. In 2002 another enormous chunk of insulating foam fell off during the launch, causing damage to the external fuel tank. Two major technical problems on a single mission in 1999, STS-93, prompted an overhaul that found not only that the Columbia’s thermal tiles were quite fragile but that the craft had 3,500 identifiable wiring faults. In 2002 a fuel line crack found in Discovery and Atlantis and the subsequent detection of similar cracks in the other two shuttles caused NASA to ground them all. The shuttle’s biggest and, ultimately, least solvable problem is the giant, torpedo-shaped object, familiar to anyone who has seen a liftoff, known as the external tank. Its faulty O-rings doomed Challenger; its problems with falling pieces of insulation mortally wounded Columbia. Since 2003 NASA has postponed shuttle launches fifteen times, in all but one of those cases citing problems with the external tank, leading the Washington Post to editorialize that the nation’s space program was a “hostage of an exasperating piece of hardware on the threshold of obsolescence.”
Hale acknowledges the hazardous design of the shuttle but says it is the result of the U.S. government’s failure to put up enough money back in the early phases of its development. “The shuttle’s mission is very important,” he says. “It is to get back and forth to low earth orbit on a regular basis. The part we never got close to was the economic part. It is a pure case of ‘Do you invest money up front so you can save money in the long run, or do you build something cheaper up front that you know is going to cost more?’ The shuttle is a remarkable achievement. It saddens me to think about some of the decisions that were made over the years by people who did not understand the consequences of what they were doing when they asked the shuttle to get by with a little less.”
As one of the two “test flights” (NASA’s term for them) that went up after the Columbia crash, Lisa Nowak’s STS-121 was all about responding to the blistering criticism contained in the CAIB report. It did not help matters when, in spite of two years’ and 1.4 billion dollars’ worth of frantic engineering, another piece of cooler-size foam broke off of Discovery during the flight that immediately preceded hers, unleashing a torrent of anger and reproach rarely seen inside NASA. Unlike nearly all other shuttle missions, the object of STS-121 was to figure out, first, how to get Discovery into orbit without a loss of foam that would damage its heat shield and, then, because they didn’t really believe they could do that, how to inspect the nose cone, leading wing edges, and tiles on its underbelly and to test techniques to repair damage. Lisa’s job was to manipulate the orbiter’s enormous robotic arm, now with the extension of a sensor-laden boom, so that the crew could look at the underside of the spacecraft. This is what she spent much of her training preparing for.
Why, considering these obvious problems, are we still sending Lisa Nowak and other astronauts aloft in the shuttle? If you ask anyone at NASA that question, the answer is quick and unambiguous: because we need to complete the space station in order to fulfill our commitments to the consortium of European and Asian countries that are our partners. This was not always the goal; the shuttle went up and down for seventeen years without carrying a single piece of space station hardware. But since 1998 the two have been inextricably linked. Like the shuttle, the station has a long and troubled past. It was commissioned by Ronald Reagan in 1984. At that time NASA’s PR machine sold the country on the idea of a large platform in space (think of the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey). It was going to cost $8 billion and be finished in 1992. At present, it is on schedule to be completed by 2010 at a fraction of its original size and for a price tag of what a number of experts estimate to be around $100 billion, even though there is no long-term use for it. Sometime after its completion date, it will be de-orbited and dropped into the ocean. By 2016 it will disappear from NASA’s budget altogether, replaced by a new mission to land men (and women) on the moon by 2020.
It would be unfair to say that no worthwhile science has been done on the station. Advances have been made in learning how humans react to long periods in space and in learning about technologies that work in zero gravity. “If you ask NASA what we’re doing on the space station,” says Robert Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland who is a longtime critic of the manned space program, “they say we are learning how to live in space. But it is not clear that we are learning anything new about how to live in space. We have been doing that for a long time, and there is nothing else going on. There is, for all practical purposes, zero research going on on the space station, and it was built as a scientific laboratory, which was preposterous in the first place.” There is wide consensus that space station science is, at best, minor science and, at worst, a rerun of the same antigravity and human physiology experiments that the Soviets were doing on the Mir space station in 1986.
According to the CAIB’s report, this obsession with finishing the station was not harmless: It contributed to the “schedule pressure” that caused NASA to make the decision to launch Columbia in spite of repeated warnings about the foam problem. Lisa Nowak’s mission was a critical part of this so-called “return to flight,” made necessary by the hard-and-fast end date of the shuttle program in 2010 and the need to haul the rest of the station’s components into space. So was STS-114, its predecessor, commanded by Eileen Collins. “We were under a time constraint because we have this space station up there that needs to be resupplied,” says Collins. “But on the other hand, we’re being criticized by the accident board and outside groups for being pressured by the schedule. So we’re trying to show people that we are not being driven by a schedule. We don’t want to do anything unsafe. But, in fact, we live by a schedule.”
The professional world of Lisa Nowak, then, was anything but ordinary or complacent. She was in the middle of one of the most deeply goal-oriented phases of NASA’s history, reminiscent in some ways of the Apollo era. Because the Columbia crash threatened the core of the agency’s being—manned spaceflight—it had to get back into space as quickly as possible, and it had to do it safely. One more accident would likely be the end of everything.
It is impossible to know, as long as Lisa refuses to talk about it, how much this great organizational and technological swirl affected her. But it is clear that her crew was well aware that it was in an extremely unusual and dangerous situation—not only from the scathing CAIB report but also from the stark fact that the foam collision on STS-114 almost duplicated what had happened on the ill-fated Columbia. Mission pilot Kelly downplays his own concern but acknowledges that “you could argue there was a bit more risk because of the redesign to the tank. You could say, ‘Well, we don’t know certain things, like how these ice frost ramps are going to perform aerodynamically. We’re looking at more risk there.’ And some of our EVAs [extravehicular activities, or space walks] were considered high risk on the end of that boom, not knowing what it is going to do. They could have broken off and hit something, and it could have been a big mess.” The person controlling that boom was Lisa. It was her risk too.
What we do know about Lisa is that she was trying to do what few people—fourteen, according to one estimate—have ever done, which is to balance motherhood and a career as an astronaut. In an interview with Ladies’ Home Journal in 2006, she explained that she had arrived for the first day of Test Pilot School in 1992 “with a 9-month-old baby … Along the way, when I was going through all the baby training and all that, even my mother was questioning it: ‘How are you gonna be able to do all these things?’ Well, I don’t know, I’ll find out as I go.” In 2001, when her son, Alexander, was nine, she gave birth to twin girls, Alyssa and Katrina. Her husband worked in Mission Control; somehow they balanced things. They gave occasional parties, including big Easter brunches. One of her friends describes her as “a sincere person, a person you like to be around and who is easy to know. She liked entertaining. If you went over to her house and did not know she was an astronaut, you would never know it. She didn’t wear it on her sleeve.” She had hobbies other than bicycling, including growing African violets and collecting rubber stamps.
Back then, Lisa, who had joined the astronaut corps in 1996 but not been assigned to a mission yet, worked in various capacities in the space program. She served as a capcom with the orbiting space station. She worked in robotics and in administrative jobs. Most unassigned astronauts work a challenging but by no means overwhelming week, maybe fifty hours. Even in those days, however, there were things that complicated her life. In 2002 Richard was deployed overseas. Someone who remembers encountering Lisa at church at the time says: “After 9/11 I saw her. Her husband had been called up, and she was stranded at home with two babies and a little boy. That must have been really hard. I don’t know how NASA handled that with her training.”
And then, in 2003, she lost three of her classmates and friends on Columbia, including a particularly close friend, Laurel Clark. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Lisa was assigned to the Clark family as a casualty assistance officer. “She did everything,” says Laurel’s husband, Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon. “She went through everything: Navy paperwork, finances, bills, bank accounts. She took care of Iain [Laurel and Jonathan’s son] during the months afterward. She saw what it was like to lose one of her best friends and for Iain to lose a mother. And the thing is, while Lisa is doing this, she is not at home with her kids. She has two very young children, but she is here twelve to fourteen hours a day under the most difficult circumstances. I have to think it was hugely stressful.”
There was something else that had to worry her: After seven years as an astronaut, Lisa still had not flown in space. (She had been briefly assigned in 2002, but the flight was canceled after the Columbia crash.) “Quite a few members of Lisa’s class were being chosen for space assignments,” says Colonel Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. “She kept missing those assignments. To be selected as an astronaut and then to sit back and not be selected for space becomes very frustrating.”
In 2004, however, everything changed. Lisa was assigned as a mission specialist to the crew of STS-121. Suddenly her workweek was more like seventy hours. In addition to her job, she had to take care of her twin toddlers and her adolescent son. It was more work than could reasonably be done by a person getting a good night’s sleep. “I tell young girls that the best jobs in the world are being an astronaut and being a mother,” says Eileen Collins. “But it is not always easy. The difference is, for a woman, the husband usually works, so you end up doing all the work at home. I will tell you that sometimes I went on two or three hours of sleep. I don’t like to push that or brag about that, because it could be unsafe. If I am going to fly, I’m going to make sure I get more sleep. But sometimes I just had to stay up because the job didn’t get done. When do you answer your e-mail? You do it at home, because you have no time at work.”
Jonathan Clark agrees that his wife sometimes faced crushing pressures. “It’s almost incomprehensible how much stress there is,” he says. “First, there’s the fact that you’re doing a high-profile job that requires a lot of travel. There are eighty-hour weeks. And it’s different for a woman. She takes care of the kids differently than a man. Most men are just not around, but she does not have that option. My perspective is that it puts immense stress on a marriage. For us it certainly did. The only way you cope with it is through incredible tolerance and flexibility.”
Assume that Lisa was under all these pressures; now add the emotional strain of a full-blown love affair with a fellow astronaut. Perhaps that’s what caused her breakdown and her delusional attempt to scare her rival, but it’s impossible to know. Nor is it possible to know how long she had suffered from what would seem to outsiders like extreme instability or mental illness. What is certain is that she did not open up to anyone at NASA—which is not surprising, as secrecy is deeply ingrained in the agency’s astronaut/pilot culture. After her arrest, the various media wondered aloud how her employer could have possibly missed such a deep emotional problem. The fact is that astronauts—who compete intensely for limited spots on the few remaining shuttle missions—will go to extraordinary lengths to thwart any process that might keep them from flying. “The whole pilot mentality is to hide these things because, generally speaking, you can’t benefit from a medical condition,” says Patricia Santy, a psychiatrist and former NASA flight surgeon who now teaches at the University of Michigan. “A visit to the doctor for an annual physical is fraught with all sorts of potential problems. Now multiply that anxiety times ten in talking to a psychologist or psychiatrist, because here is something that there is no objective measurement for. It’s not even a lab test they can show you—just some guy’s word that you are acting strangely.” Indeed, there is an old saying at NASA: Every astronaut dreams of strangling the very last flight surgeon with the entrails of the very last space psychologist.
The most eloquent investigation of astronaut mental illness was Aldrin’s book Return to Earth, which chronicles his depression, excessive drinking, and destructive extramarital love affair after his return from the moon. As Aldrin tells it, he suddenly found himself sinking into what he calls “a morass of despair.” He became nearly dysfunctional, crying often and sometimes unable even to complete “a coherent sentence.” Like other astronauts, he concealed his problem, hiding it for a time under the rubric of “family counseling.” Aldrin believes his struggles stemmed, in part, from his adventure in space. “My life was highly structured,” he wrote. “There had always existed a major goal of one sort or another … What possible goal could I add now? There simply wasn’t one, and without a goal I was like an inert ping-pong ball being batted about by the whims and motivations of others.”
We will never know if Lisa experienced the dark side of the return from space that Aldrin describes unless she tells us, and for now she is silent. She has practical, immediate problems that won’t be solved by subjecting herself to street-corner space psychology. She will soon stand trial on charges of attempted kidnapping with intent to inflict bodily harm, burglary with a weapon, and battery (she has pleaded not guilty). Later, she will almost certainly face some form of disciplinary action from the military. Her personal and professional lives are in ruins. She is out of a job, separated from her husband, estranged from her lover, and stuck in a cul-de-sac in Clear Lake, wondering, no doubt, what became of the happier and more hopeful world she saw spinning luminously from the windows of Discovery.