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Astronaut arrested in kidnap attempt

February 06, 2007|John Johnson Jr. and Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writers

A NASA astronaut was arrested in Florida early Monday and accused of attacking a woman she considered her rival for the love of another astronaut, Orlando police said.

Navy Capt. Lisa Marie Nowak, who flew last summer on a shuttle mission to the International Space Station, drove nearly 1,000 miles from her home in Houston to intercept the woman, who was just arriving at Orlando International Airport, police said.

Nowak, 43, accosted 30-year-old Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman in a parking lot and sprayed her with pepper spray in an attempt to kidnap her, according to a police affidavit.

The arrest, first reported by the Orlando Sentinel, was an embarrassment for America's space agency, which for nearly five decades has obsessively portrayed its astronauts as paragons of personal integrity.

Police said Nowak considered Shipman a romantic rival for Navy Cmdr. William A. Oefelein, 41, who flew on the most recent shuttle mission in November.

Nowak, who is married with three children, was arrested on felony charges of attempted kidnapping, attempted vehicle burglary with battery, and misdemeanor charges of destruction of evidence and simple battery, according to Orlando Police Sgt. Kathryn Sullivan.

James Hartsfield, a NASA spokesman at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said this was the first case he was aware of in which an active-duty astronaut had been charged with a felony.

He said that Nowak's status as an astronaut "is unchanged; I cannot speculate on what may happen in the future."

"There is a feeling that it is all very unfortunate for the families involved," he said.

Hartsfield said all astronauts go through rigorous psychological and physical testing. But, he said, "we don't track the personal lives of the individuals that work for the agency."

He emphasized that Nowak "did an excellent job" on her July mission, which continued work on the half-built space station.

Reached by phone Monday night, Nowak's mother, Jane Caputo of Rockville, Md., said she didn't know what happened with her daughter. "I wish I could help," she said. "But I know no more than you do."

The attack occurred in the airport's long-term parking lot about 4 a.m. EST Monday, police said.

Shipman had flown into Orlando, then took a bus to the long-term parking lot to pick up her car. Nowak, wearing a black wig and a trench coat, boarded the same bus, police said.

As Shipman got into her car, she heard running footsteps and saw Nowak coming toward her, police said. Nowak persuaded Shipman to roll down the driver's window a little, saying she needed to use Shipman's cellphone. Nowak then shot pepper spray into the car, Sullivan said.

Shipman drove off and reported the attack at the parking-lot tollbooth. Airport police, which is a division of the Orlando Police Department, responded; officers found Nowak at a bus stop waiting to return to the airport terminal.

At the time of her arrest, Nowak was carrying a black bag containing a steel mallet, a 4-inch folding knife, a BB gun, 3 feet of rubber tubing and several garbage bags. A wig was found in a plastic bag in a nearby trash bin.

Police later searched her car at a nearby motel, discovering a love letter to Oefelein, latex gloves, e-mails between Oefelein and Shipman, and handwritten directions to Shipman's residence near Cape Canaveral, according to the Associated Press.

Police said Nowak drove from Houston wearing diapers so she would not have to stop to relieve herself, the Associated Press reported. Shuttle astronauts wear diapers during launch and reentry.

Nowak told arresting officers that she didn't intend to harm Shipman, that she just wanted to talk with her about their mutual relationship with Oefelein. She said her relationship with Oefelein was "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship," according to police.

Nowak is being held without bond.

Sullivan said Oefelein was aware of the incident. He could not be reached for comment late Monday.

The approximately 100 astronauts are subjected to intensive training before being selected for flight status and must pass rigorous psychological examinations. Their training emphasizes the sense that astronauts are part of an exclusive club that operates more as a family than a working team.

Nowak is a 1985 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., with a degree in engineering, according to her NASA biography.

A former test pilot, she has logged more than 1,500 hours of flight time in 30 different kinds of aircraft.

She joined the space program in 1996.

Three members of her astronaut class were aboard Columbia when it broke up while attempting to land in 2003.

In her biography, she lists her interests as running, playing piano and collecting African violets.

Oefelein, 41, was born in Virginia but considers Anchorage his hometown.

He attended Oregon State University, majoring in electrical engineering.

He joined the Navy and became a fighter pilot, attending the "Top Gun" school at the Miramar Naval Air Station, now known as Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

He was selected as an astronaut in the summer of 1998. Last year's trip to the space station was his first mission in space. He served as pilot.

His NASA biography says he likes fishing, snowboarding and hiking. He has two children and lives in Houston.

Shipman graduated from Pennsylvania State University. She works as an engineer at Patrick Air Force Base, south of Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, according to Orlando police.

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john.johnson@latimes.com

alan.zarembo@latimes.com

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