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Space agency to examine astronaut selection process

Officials want to `see if there's something we missed' following the love triangle arrest.

February 08, 2007|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

NASA announced a review of its screening process Wednesday after the arrest of astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak this week in Florida on charges of assault and attempted murder.

Under the space agency's recruitment process, astronaut candidates undergo a battery of behavioral tests and are interviewed by a psychologist and a psychiatrist before being selected. Only 0.7% of candidates are chosen.

The results of these interviews can be used to determine whether a candidate is eligible for short- or long-duration flights. After selection, there are no scheduled follow-up examinations by mental health experts.

NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said at a news conference that the vast majority of astronauts had done their jobs and behaved professionally.

But the arrest of Nowak, who Orlando police said tried to kidnap and kill a female rival in a love triangle, has prompted the agency "to see if there's something we missed along the way," Dale said.

"We have a very good track record. Our astronauts are stellar performers," she said, adding that "this is a very difficult time and a very tragic event."

Space agency officials said they thought this was the first time an active-duty astronaut had been arrested on felony charges.

NASA also announced that it would review monitoring and treatment options for career astronauts, who endure unusual mental and physical stresses during training and lengthy spaceflights in cramped quarters.

Counseling is available to troubled astronauts and other Johnson Space Center employees, said Robert D. Cabana, deputy director of the Houston center. Every astronaut receives an annual medical evaluation, he said.

For more than 20 years, NASA has conducted an ongoing study of astronaut health problems, involving retired as well as active-duty personnel. But the study seeks to gauge the long-term effects of space flight, not mental health.

The reviews, ordered by NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin, were announced at a news conference held simultaneously at NASA headquarters in Washington and Johnson Space Center, home of the manned space program.

The briefings were held as Nowak returned to Houston on a commercial flight from Orlando. The 43-year-old Navy captain underwent a medical evaluation Wednesday morning at the space center, NASA officials said.

Nowak, a married mother of three who was part of a July shuttle mission to the International Space Station, was arrested early Monday morning at Orlando International Airport.

Police said she had left Houston over the weekend and driven nearly 1,000 miles to Orlando -- wearing diapers to avoid stopping for restroom breaks -- to meet a flight carrying her romantic rival, Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman.

Nowak, wearing a dark wig and a trench coat, rode an airport bus to the long-term parking lot with Shipman, police said. Nowak allegedly followed Shipman to her car, then shot pepper spray through the window. Shipman was able to drive away and report the attack.

Police found a BB gun, a 4-inch folding knife, rubber tubing and garbage bags in Nowak's black duffel bag.

She told police she only wanted to frighten Shipman into talking with her about their mutual interest in Navy Cmdr. William A. Oefelein, a divorced father of two who also is an astronaut.

Nowak was charged with assault, attempted kidnapping and attempted murder. She was released Tuesday after posting a $25,500 bond.

Dale and Cabana said there were no signs that Nowak, who had separated from her husband last month, was having any serious problems.

Cabana said the person arrested in Florida was not the astronaut he knew.

He described Nowak as "a hard-working, energetic person, a team player."

Nowak was removed from active duty Tuesday, pending resolution of the criminal charges.


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