In his classic book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe noted the contradiction between the carefully crafted public image that NASA maintained for its astronauts, and their private behavior. As Mr. Wolfe reminds us, the “original seven” Mercury astronauts were all products of a military aviation culture that popularized “Flying & Drinking & Drinking & Driving,” and tolerated other indiscretions as well. Wolfe never exactly “named names” in The Right Stuff but he did report that some young ladies around Cape Canaveral in the early 1960s staged a contest, to see how many astronauts they could sleep with. Wolfe also observed that among the “Mercury Seven,” only John Glenn came close to meeting the “Boy Scout” image that NASA cultivated for its astronauts.
Ah, for the Good Old Days.
As you’ve probably heard, NASA has a new (ahem) image problem on its hands, and it has nothing to do with O-Rings, incompetent administrators, or chunks of insulation foam that doom a shuttle’s reentry. This latest crisis stems from yesterday’s arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who faces charges of attempted kidnapping, battery, vehicle battery, and other counts. Nowak, who is also a Navy Captain (O-6), drove 900 miles from Houston to Orlando, to confront Colleen Shipman, an Air Force Captain who is her apparent rival for the affections of another shuttle astronaut, Navy Commander William Oefelein.
The AP has all the sordid details. Nowak reportedly wore astronaut diapers on her drive to Orlando, so she wouldn’t have to stop to urinate. After confronting Shipman at the airport, Nowak reportedly sprayed her rival with pepper spray, then discarded various weapons (a steel mallet, a 4-inch knife and a BB gun) as she tried to escape. Police found a love letter from Nowak to Oefelein in her car, along with e-mails between the two astronauts. Nowak is currently being held without bond, and faces a court hearing today in Orlando.
NASA’s reaction to all of this has been predictable.
NASA spokesman James Hartsfield in Houston said that, as of Monday, Nowak’s status with the astronaut corps remained unchanged.
“What will happen beyond that, I will not speculate,” he said.
Hartsfield said he couldn’t recall the last time an astronaut was arrested and said there were no rules against fraternizing among astronauts.
But Mr. Hartsfield is ignoring a couple of important facts. First of all, each of the individuals involved in this triangle are military members, and subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Fraternization is a punishable offense under the UCMJ, given that Nowak outranks Commander Oefelein, and both apparently fall in the same chain of command (the NASA Astronaut Office). However, the good Commander isn’t necessarily off the hook, either. If he willingly participated in a relationship with Nowak–and that hasn’t been confirmed–then, he’s guilty of fraternization as well. Captain Nowak, on the other hand, could also face adultery charges, since she’s married and has three children. At the time of her arrest, Nowak described her connection with Oefelein as “more than a working relationship, but less than a romantic relationship.” Somewhere, Bill Clinton must be smiling.
Oefelein may also have problems regarding his relationship with Captain Shipman. True, both are apparently single, but there has long been an informal, “one up/one down” rule on dating in the ranks; in other words, you don’t date someone more than one grade above you or below you to avoid any appearance of fraternization. As a Navy Commander, Oefelein is two grades higher than Air Force Captain (O-3) Shipman. Oefelein might also face discipline if we find out that Shipman is also assigned to NASA, and in his chain of command. At this point, it may be accurate to potray Oefelein as a victim in this mess, but I’m not exactly impressed with his judgment. Oefelein may be an ace shuttle pilot, but it also looks like he’s trying channel Jack Nicholson’s character in Terms of Endearment.
To a casual observer, the Nowak debacle suggests a couple of things: First, NASA’s vaunted psychological screening procedures must be slipping. It’s difficult to fathom that someone with obvious mental problems could make the cut for the astronaut corps and actually fly a mission without her defects being exposed. Astronaut training and mission preparation are rigorous and demanding by design, aimed at weeding out anyone who can’t handle extreme pressure. As a taxpayer, it’s a little disturbing to think that someone who went off the deep end over a failed office romance was apparently flying on the space shuttle.
The second lesson from all of this is that the military needs to tighten control of personnel assigned to the astronaut office in Houston. Historically, the military has adopted a “hands off” approach to officers who qualify as astronauts. While serving with NASA, military personnel retain their rank, pay and other benefits, but supervision is minimal, and enforcement of standards is apparently lax. For example, take a look at Nowak’s “official” astronaut photograph, linked here. I’m hardly an expert on Navy dress and appearance standards, but Capt Nowak’s “spacesuit” hairstyle does not appear to be within military limits. If you’re willing to compromise on one of the fundamental standards for any member of the armed services (dress and appearance), you’re probably willing to cut corners in other areas, too.
One final thought: reading her NASA bio, it looks like Captain Nowak was one of the Navy’s “golden girls;” an Academy grad; two post-graduate engineering degrees, and selection for the service’s test pilot school. She has over 1,500 flying hours in high-performance aircraft–low for an officer of her rank–and you’ll also note another thing missing from her resume: deployment time and combat experience. Nowak’s resume suggests a woman who’s been aiming for the shuttle since the day she entered Annapolis, with the support and encouragement of Navy leadership. And, her lack of service “with the fleet” has not hampered her advancement. Nowak apparently made Captain on time, and might have had a shot at Rear Admiral, had she not made that fateful, diaper-clad drive from Houston to Orlando.
Regarding Nowak’s lack of operational experience, it is true that women were barred from combat duty during the early stages of her career, but those restrictions were gone by the mid-1990s. Instead of putting her test flight and electronic combat experience to work in the fleet, Captain Nowak signed on with NASA. She’s been in Houston for more than a decade, working her way up the astronaut chain, and (apparently) lookin’ for a little orbital love on the side. Meanwhile, other naval aviators have been flying the line, flying combat missions in the Balkans and the Middle East, and pulling those six month carrier deployments to the Persian Gulf and the western Pacific. It would be interesting to know what the “real” naval aviators think of Nowak, her gilded areer, and the discredit she’s bringing upon NASA and the Navy.
Addendum: As a public service, we’re organizing a “Lisa Nowak/Love Among the Stars” contest, allowing you to predict the ultimate disposition of this case. Submit your answers to the questions below to email@example.com. Readers with the most accurate answer in each category will receive their choice of a NASA baseball cap or coffee mug. Entry deadline is 31 March 2007. Enter as many times as you’d like. In the event of a tie, the winner will be determined by the date/time of the earliest e-mail received. Good luck, and here are your questions:
1) Predict the month/year when the Navy will announce Captain Nowak’s “retirement” from the service, and the rank/pay grade she will retire at.
2) Predict the month/year when Mr. Nowak will file for divorce.
3) Predict the month/year when Captain Nowak will enter rehab.
4) Predict the month/year when Nowak will appear on “Oprah” to discuss her problem.