“It’s easy to see why NASA didn’t see it coming. NASA is more concerned with seeing astronauts manage the stress that comes with flying rickety old rockets than in whether they can move on in the midst of unrequited love. To identify Lisa’s problem would require putting her under extreme emotional stress in a test specifically designed to pick up on signs of personality disorders. And no test is perfect.”

Ford Vox, M.D., The Atlantic, February 17, 2011

In 1963, the year Lisa Novak was born, the number one song on Billboard 100 was “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March.
How prophetic.

In 2006 Nowak became one of America’s best known stalkers, and certainly the first astronaut to publically lose it over a love affair gone wrong.

She was an unlikely candidate to go rogue. Nowak was one of the elite, an astronaut at a time when women were only beginning to gain a foothold in the space program. She was vetted, tested, and scrutinized quite intensely before joining the special corps that prepared for NASA’s space missions.

“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.”

Lust in Space’ Texas Monthly

Yes, being an astronaut is a demanding profession but her job didn’t keep Nowak from starting a family. She married Richard, a classmate from the Naval Academy and they had three children (a son and twin girls). Nowak said in one interview with NBC News, “It’s definitely a challenge to do the flying and take care of even one child and do all the other things you have to do. But I learned that you can do it.”

Behind the scene problems existed in Nowak’s personal life. In 2004, before she’d made it into space, she began an affair with fellow astronaut William Oefelein. (Oefelein trained with Nowak but the two did not go into space at the same time.) In 2005, Oefelein divorced his wife. After 19 years of marriage, Nowak and her husband separated early in 2007. At the time she envisioned a future with Oefelein, even writing to his mother of her gratitude for supporting their burgeoning relationship.

But in late 2006, Oefelein, nicknamed “Billy O,” met U.S. Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman and began a relationship with her. Oefelein says he told Lisa Nowak about Ms. Shipman in January of 2007.

It points to his cluelessness that he thought Nowak, who ended her marriage (involving her three children), took the break-up well. He said it was his impression that they would remain friends and continue to train together for the MS 150, a charity bike race. Then Shipman became uncomfortable with Nowak’s bike being kept at Oefelein’s place. She asked him to tell Nowak to remove it. There was tension about what Shipman saw as an unresolved relationship.

Oefelein had provided Nowak with a cell phone to communicate with him. Phone records show that she called him at least twelve times, and sent seven text messages the day after he returned from his Space Shuttle flight on December 22, 2006. On December 24, they had a seven-minute conversation. During December and January, over one hundred calls were made, although it is unclear who called whom. Under questioning by NASA and military investigators, Oefelein reportedly stated that he had broken off the relationship with Nowak. However he had lunch with her in his apartment at least once in January, they continued to train together for the bicycle race, and they went to the gym together.
Nowak continued to call Oefelein almost every day. She used a key Oefelein had given her to enter his apartment, where she accessed personal emails between Oefelein and Shipman. In one, Shipman wrote, “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.”

Oops. Nowak finally got the picture.


Nowak then proceeded with the trip that would result in headlines dubbing her an “astro-nut.”

On April 10, 2007, Florida prosecutors released more material in the case. The previous week, On February 4, 2007, Nowak packed latex gloves, a black wig, a BB pistol and ammunition, pepper spray, a hooded tan trench coat, a drilling hammer, black gloves, an 8-inch (200 mm) Gerber folding knife and other items. She then drove her husband’s car 900 miles from Houston to Orlando, Florida, to confront Shipman.

Unfortunately, Nowak will be remembered for wearing an adult diaper on a mad cross-country dash, determined not to slow down for rest-room stops.

The police have no diapers in evidence, only a mention in a detective’s affidavit from the night of the attack which said, Lisa “‘Nowak admitted she … drove approximately 900 miles, urinated in diapers so that she did not need to stop.” 

ABC News, Contemporary Document File

It’s unclear which brand of diapers Nowak used for her non-stop trip. She had access to several.

“NASA developed its adult diapers out of necessity. Astronauts floating outside their spacecraft on long spacewalks (which can last five to eight hours) can’t take a bathroom break. During takeoff, astronauts may have to remain strapped for hours in back-laying chairs with their knees and legs above their heads — a position that increases the need to urinate. Even if crew members dehydrate themselves before takeoff, nature will not be denied: The kidneys will still trickle out a milliliter of urine a minute. NASA estimates that astronauts expel around a liter of urine while in launch position.”

HowStuffWorks, O’Driscoll

Later it was claimed that the diapers found in her car were toddler diapers due to her family’s evacuation during the 2005 hurricane season.

Nowak became a punch line. 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.”

NASA diapers or no, on February, 5, 2007 Nowak went to the Orlando Airport and waited for about half an hour for Shipman’s plane. Shipman said that after arriving, she became aware of someone following her to an airport satellite parking area. When she got into her car, she heard rapid footsteps and quickly locked the door. Nowak tried to open the car door, and pretending to be homeless, asked for a ride, then started crying.

Shipman rolled down the window a couple of inches after which Nowak sprayed the pepper spray into the car. Shipman drove off and called the police. Orlando police officers arrived minutes later and one officer observed Nowak throwing a bag into the trash at a parking shuttle bus stop. Nowak, in her disguise of wig and raincoat, was subsequently arrested at Orlando International Airport on charges of attempted kidnapping, battery, attempted vehicle burglary with battery, and destruction of evidence.

Requesting a restraining order against Nowak after her arrest, Shipman claimed that Nowak had been stalking her for two months. Nowak told investigators she was involved in a relationship with Oefelein, which she described as being “more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship.” Citing evidence of elaborate planning, disguises and weapons, police recommended she be held without bail.
On April 10, 2007, Florida prosecutors released more material in the case. The previous week, the trial judge had agreed to unseal some of the documents that described items found in Nowak’s car after her arrest. Among these items were a handwritten note listing Shipman’s flight information and one on “Flight Controller’s Log” paper listing more than 24 items, including sneakers, plastic gloves, contacts, cash, an umbrella, and black sweats, a floppy disc contained two photographs of Nowak riding in a bicycle race, and 15 images depicting an unidentified woman in different stages of undress. An evidence report indicated that nearly all of the photographs and drawings depicted scenes of bondage. Also found were $585.00 (USD) and £41.00 (GPD) in cash and four brown paper bags with 69 orange pills that were not publicly identified. Nowak was a woman with a plan.

Nowak was also considered dangerous, at least at the moment, and sent to jail.
Two fellow astronauts flew to Florida in T-38 jets for Nowak’s arraignment and appeared before a judge on her behalf.astronaut at NASA. On February 6, 2007, both appeared before a judge on her behalf. The state’s assistant attorney, Amanda Cowan, argued that the facts indicated a well-thought-out plan to kidnap and potentially injure Shipman. Wanting pretrial release, Nowak’s attorney pleaded, “One’s good works must count for something.”

Nowak was released on $15,500 bail under the condition she wear a GPS tracking system and not contact Shipman.

But before Nowak was released, Orlando police charged Nowak with attempted first-degree murder and therefore she could not be released on bail. In the second arraignment Nowak was charged with attempted first-degree murder with a deadly weapon, and the judge raised bail by $10,000. Posting bail, Nowak was released from jail.
Shipman was not happy with the sentence. She told the court Nowak had intended to kill her: “It was in her eyes: a blood-chilling expression of limitless rage and glee.” Shipman was left with nightmares and dizzy spells, she said; she also felt she needed weapons to protect herself.

After the incident in Orlando, Nowak and Oefelein were returned to the Navy from NASA because they had violated the Navy’s rules prohibiting adultery. Naval officials waited for Nowak’s kidnapping case to be resolved before taking further action against her. She remained on active duty with the Navy .

On February 6, 2007, Nowak was placed on 30-day leave by NASA. Returning to Houston on a commercial airline flight on February 8,upon arrival she was taken immediately to the Johnson Space Center for medical and psychiatric evaluation. Nowak’s assignment to NASA as a serving Navy officer was terminated by the space agency on March 7, 2007.

Then, in 2011, The Navy gave “an other than honorable discharge and she was demoted from a captain to a commander, as reported by NBC News.

NASA suffered an image disaster almost as great as a rocket explosion.
Immediately reasons for her behavior were put forward.

Nowak never had to use the insanity defense, preemptively filed in the Florida court system filing which included an assessment by psychiatrist Richard Pesikoff who diagnosed bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, Asperger’s syndrome and insomnia as factors diminishing her culpability for her actions.

“Paul Siegel, an assistant professor of psychology at Purchase College, isn’t buying any of it. 20/20’s piece features Dr. Siegel’s opinion on the case, and I interviewed him this week.why doesn’t temporary insanity explain what the high-flying Lisa Nowak tried to do that night to Colleen Shipman? As her lawyer said, clearly the whole episode was out of character.”

The Atlantic magazine

Her character actually is the problem, says Dr. Siegel. “Typical mental disorders, like bipolar disorder or depression, are characterized by a pattern of sickness,” Dr. Siegel says. “You can’t concentrate, you’re not eating and sleeping, etcetera.

“A personality disorder is not something you have. It’s something you are. Nowak doesn’t have symptoms of illness. Rather, she has personality traits.”

Personality disorders are disturbed patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that come to the surface especially in relationships. In work or daily life in settings many people with personality disorders will behave normally. But enter jealousy, with its anger and insecurity, and behavior can shift markedly.

“The Lisa Nowak who terrorized Colleen in the airport that night was not the astronaut and suburban supermom raising three kids who likes to grow African violets in her garden. An entirely different side of her emerged, a much darker side.”

Paul Siegal

(Dr. Siegel trained at Weil Cornell under Paulina Kernberg who along with her husband Otto are central figures in the history of personality disorders.)

When we create heroes do we encourage personality disorders? There was widespread public reaction to Nowak’s arrest. Some commentators opined that NASA’s presentation of astronauts as heroes was part of the problem.

Nowak was glamorized as her story has been adapted for television, movie, play and song. “Rocket Man”, a 2007 episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, featuring a love triangle among astronauts, was inspired by Nowak’s story, A 2008 Molly Lewis song, “Road Trip”, recounts the details of early news reports about Nowak’s trip from Houston to Orlando.The 2017 Austra music video for “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself” is based on the actions leading up to Nowak’s final arrest. Nowak was also the subject of a play, Starcrosser’s Cut, which opened in Los Angeles in June 2013. In 2019, the film Lucy in the Sky (starring Natalie Portman as astronaut Lucy Cola:) was made, loosely based on Nowak’s story.

Nowak and her husband divorced in 2008. In 2017, Nowak was reported to be living quietly in Texas, working in the private sector. She was said to have difficulty getting a job after her notoriety. She succeeded in having her criminal case sealed in 2011. In an interview in People magazine, Nowak’s attorney stated “She’s doing well.”

Oefelein was released by NASA in June 2007.

Oefelein and Shipman got married in 2010, moved to Alaska, and have a son..

“A lot of people ask, ‘Did you forgive Lisa Nowak for what she did?” Shipman said to People in 2016. “She committed a crime, she was convicted, she finished her sentence. I’m not sure there’s anything really for me to forgive.”

Lisa Nowak issued this letter of apology, as directed by the judge, to Colleen Shipman in November of 2009. In it she said, “I want to offer you my full personal apology for my conduct … it was wrong of me to come to Orlando, to go to the parking lot, and to alarm you there at your car by spraying pepper spray.” Lisa Nowak signed the letter “with heartfelt apologies.

ABC News, October, 2009

In June, 2007, NASA instituted annual psychological screenings for astronauts.