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NASA fires astronaut charged in Florida assault

The agency says it can't administratively deal with the counts against her. She will report back to the Navy.

March 08, 2007|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, charged with attempted kidnapping after confronting a rival for another astronaut's affections at an Orlando, Fla., airport last month, was fired by NASA on Wednesday. She is the first astronaut ever dismissed by the space agency.

NASA's decision does not reflect the agency's belief in her guilt or innocence, spokesman James Hartsfield said.

"The primary reason for the termination is we don't have the administrative means to deal with the criminal charges against her," he said.

Although most NASA employees are civil servants, Nowak is a Navy officer on assignment to the space agency. In a comparable situation involving a NASA civil servant, agency officials would have the option of putting the employee on leave or indefinite suspension until criminal charges were resolved. But "she is not subject to administrative action by NASA," Hartsfield said.

Nowak, a captain, will report in April to the chief of Naval Air Training in Corpus Christi, Texas, a Navy spokesman said. Her new duties have not been determined.

Nowak, a 43-year-old mother of three, is accused of pepper-spraying the girlfriend of space shuttle pilot Cmdr. William A. Oefelein after driving to the airport from Houston wearing an astronaut diaper so she wouldn't have to stop. After the alleged attack, police found a BB gun, a steel mallet, a knife and rubber tubing in Nowak's car.

Nowak pleaded not guilty to attempted kidnapping and burglary with assault, and was released on bail. She returned to her Houston home wearing a monitoring device on her ankle.

In Florida, the state attorney general's office on Monday released a statement to police from Oefelein and e-mails written to Oefelein from his girlfriend, Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, while he was on a shuttle mission in December.

Oefelein's statement offered confirmation from one of the principals that he and Nowak were romantically involved. Nowak told police after her arrest that the two had "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship."

Oefelein told police that after a two- or three-year relationship, he and Nowak split around January so that he could date Shipman. He thought it was an amicable parting.

One e-mail Shipman sent to Oefelein in the space shuttle 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."

"You write such good notes!! You are the best!! I love you," Oefelein wrote in response.

Police seized the notes from Nowak's car after her arrest. They had been downloaded from a computer in Oefelein's Houston apartment, to which Nowak had a key.

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lianne.hart@latimes.com

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