When the Lisa Nowak scandal broke a few months ago, it was obvious that the Navy Captain (and NASA astronaut) was in a lot of trouble. After a 900-mile drive to confront a romantic rival–outfitted in an official space diaper, no less–Captain Nowak proceeded to assault the woman, Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, and reportedly planned to kidnap her as well. Weapons found in her car allowed Florida prosecutors to file even more charges against her, and Nowak was summarily dismissed from the space program. She has since been reassigned to a desk job with the Naval Training Command, while awaiting her trial in Florida.
At the time, we also speculated about the fate of her lover, fellow astronaut (and Navy Commander), William Oefelein. While Commander Oefelein was single, we observed that he could still face potential problems. His love triangle had created a public relations nightmare for NASA, and as a naval officer, Oefelein could still face punishment for adultery, since Nowak was married at the time of her affair. However, more enlightened pundits in the blogosphere dismissed that notion; Commander Oefelein, like Captain Shipman, was a “victim” in this sordid mess. Had Lisa Nowak never made her infamous road trip, the matter would have never become a public scandal, etc.
We’ll soon discover the Navy’s plans for Oefelein because yesterday, less than four months after Nowak’s arrest, it was announced that her former lover’s assignment to the space agency is coming to an end. Commander Oefelein learned Wednesday that his detail to NASA will end on June 1st, and he will return to duty as a naval officer. A statement from NASA officials tried to put a positive spin on the move, saying that Oefelein had completed his assignment as pilot of a shuttle mission last year, and both the agency and the Navy had “mutally agreed” to end his assignment to the space program.
It is true that some astronauts do return to military assignments after a tour at NASA; former shuttle commander Kevin Chilton is a case in point. Since leaving NASA, he’s become a four-star general in the USAF, and now leads Air Force Space Command. However, General Chilton didn’t leave NASA under a cloud of scandal. Moreover, many military officers are allowed to remain with the space agency almost indefinitely, provided that their performance is satisfactory, and the service doesn’t have more pressing plans for them. Prior to Nowak’s arrest, there was no indication that the Navy had immediate assignments for her or Commander Oefelein. The resulting scandal–and now, Oefelein’s short-notice return to the Navy–indicates that his reassignment is, in fact, a de facto dismissal.
As for his future in the Navy, prosecution for misconduct is a possibility, although the service (like NASA) would prefer for this debacle to quietly fade away. Depending on what NASA and the Navy have learned in their investigation, Commander Oefelein may escape punishment, but I don’t think the service has any plum jobs awaiting him. Like Nowak, Oefelein will likely be assigned to a back-water position while the service deliberates his fate. Unlike his former girl friend, Oefelein isn’t facing any charges from civilian authorities, but the problems he caused for NASA and the Navy are enough to wreck his chances for promotion. Now, the real question is whether senior naval leaders believe Oefelein’s conduct warrants some sort of punishment beyond his removal from NASA, say a Letter of Reprimand or even an Article 15.
We can offer one sure prediction about Commander Oefelein’s new assignment: it will be far, far away from the desk now manned by Lisa Nowak.