Lisa Nowak's Strange Spacewalk

Lisa Nowak's fate is still in orbit. The space shuttle astronaut was transformed from local hero to intergalactic spectacle last February, following a madcap, 900-mile drive she made to confront—and, police say, assault—a romantic rival with pepper spray. Now, Nowak is back in the news, after the Florida State Attorney’s Office released a transcript of her interview with authorities the day she was apprehended. According to the 72-page document (Part 1, Part 2), she tells police that she only pursued Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman to ask if she was aware of Nowak’s relationship with shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein. Both women were involved with Oefelein over the last year: Nowak as a shuttle mate/maybe girlfriend, Shipman as a friend/maybe lover. The transcript doesn’t resolve the nature of the relationships in this mysterious triangle. It does, however, offer a few new elements of intrigue and titillation to the storyline, interspersed with enough fast and fractured dialogue to rival a David Mamet play.

Some words are blacked out, but the transcribed conversation between Nowak and Orlando Police Det. Chris Becton amounts to a thought-by-thought record of her mind on the night of her arrest. She seems less angry with Shipman than perhaps you’d expect from a women carrying a four-inch knife, a steel mallet, and several lengths of rubber tubing. She even says she’d be open to Oefelein dating both of them, “as long as everybody knows that that’s the case.” Detective Becton comes across as an adept interviewer who carefully employs the whip and the feather—alternately challenging and comforting Nowak, while acknowledging her accomplishments in space. At one point, he tells her that he brought his daughter to see her shuttle launch last July 4. “I’ve got all the video clips, four, five, six video clips. It was the very first shuttle my daughter saw go up,” he says. He also suggests that Nowak see a counselor: “You have a lot going on inside of you. It’s either a lot of pain, a lot of anger, or it’s both. And right now you’re bottling it up a lot.”

Her emotions weren’t the only things she was bottling up. According to court documents made public in April and May, Nowak had 69 mysterious orange pills in her car—along with $585, 41 British pounds, four clean brown paper towels, a floppy disk containing two photographs of Nowak riding in a bicycle race, and—strangest of all—15 images of an unknown woman in varying stages of undress. The case is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 24, and an insanity plea hasn’t been ruled out, according to Marti Mackenzie, a spokesperson for Nowak’s defense team tells NEWSWEEK. (For now, however, the 44-year-old former astronaut is pleading not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping, battery and burglary with assault.) One point of contention to emerge pre-trial: whether Nowak was in fact wearing a diaper—reportedly to save time on bathroom breaks—on her long Houston-to-Orlando trek. The tidbit first appeared in an affidavit that has yet to be retracted by Orlando Police. “That’s a sworn document that has to speak for itself,” according Sgt. Barbara Jones, a spokesperson for the Orlando Police Department. In the affidavit, Officer Becton says Nowak told him that the diapers were used “to collect her urine” because “she didn’t want to stop.” But Nowak’s lawyer, Donald Lykkebak, angrily rejects this version of events. At a hearing last month, he called the diaper detail the “biggest lie” perpetrated against his client. He insists they were sized “toddler 3,” left over from the family’s evacuation from Houston in 2005 ahead of Hurricane Rita and hardly big enough for a grown woman. “You can’t put it on,” he added, possibly setting up a Court TV moment to rival O. J. Simpson’s attempt to don the bloody glove. In any case, the Orlando brass isn’t holding the diaper as evidence. “It would be a biohazard,” says Sergeant Jones.

While she awaits her day in court, Nowak is trying to live life as normally as possible. While she was released by NASA following news of her encounter with Shipman, “Lisa Nowak is an active duty Navy officer taking care of her family in Houston,” says Mackenzie. Active duty? “Just ask Martha Stewart if you can work while awaiting trial,” she says. Sure enough, the Corpus Christi Air Station confirms that Nowak is busy developing flight-training curricula for use throughout the Navy. "One thing astronauts do very, very well is train," says Lt. Sean Robertson, a Navy public-affairs officer. Like Stewart, Nowak wears a police-mandated ankle bracelet and her name continues to show up in unexpected places, including a May episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” that adapted her story complete with a diaper-clad drive. And just last month, she was honored at a NASA awards ceremony that recognized her Space Flight Medal, “for significant achievement … in a space flight mission.” On to the splashdown.

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