Lisa Nowak: What Happened to the Girl I Knew?

The last time I saw Lisa Nowak was Thanksgiving weekend 2001 at our 20th high-school reunion. This moment is etched in my mind, though I'm not sure why. The infamous drive from Texas to Florida, the diaper drama and wig, the love triangle, the late-night jokes—all of that had yet to happen. There I was, chatting with old friends at the Marriott in Gaithersburg, Md., when Lisa walked over to say hello. It was just two months after 9/11 and we all needed something happy to focus on. Lisa had the right stuff. She was elated about her twin girls, born just weeks before. And she was looking forward to pulling on her spacesuit and going for a ride. Nowak was the great Astromom—the woman who could mother three kids and train for a NASA shuttle flight. I was glad to see her.

I am still trying to sort out what happened six years later. This week Navy Capt. Lisa Marie Nowak appeared before a judge in an Orlando courtroom in a dark suit, pearls, and pumps, and pleaded guilty to two charges in the notorious case against her: felony burglary and misdemeanor battery. She looked exhausted, thin, and aged. Nowak answered the judge's questions calmly and confidently, then listened as her victim, Colleen Shipman, described the horror she experienced on the night of Feb. 5, 2007, when Nowak followed her to her car in the dark parking lot of Orlando International Airport and assaulted her with pepper spray. A shaken Shipman, who was dating Nowak's love interest, former space-shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein, detailed the nightmares, anxiety, high blood pressure, dizzy spells, and chest pain she has suffered since the attack. Nowak, she said, is a great actress and an accomplished liar. "I know in my heart when Lisa Nowak attacked me, she was going to kill me," Shipman testified. "I believe I escaped a horrible death that night."

There are myriad theories about what drove Nowak, a woman who'd floated near heaven and circled the stars, to plummet into the abyss of passion. But none explains precisely what triggered her bizarre behavior. I am beginning to think we may never know. Growing up, she was competitive, ambitious, a perfectionist. Not somebody who seemed destined to self-destruct. She excelled throughout school; she ranked high in student government; she went to church. And she dreamed about walking on the moon. Nowak was hyperfocused, not teenage-silly. My old friend Alison Ahmed remembers everybody else chatting and joking around while running laps during field-hockey practice. "Not Lisa," says Ahmed. She was out front and alone. "Lisa always had to be first." She was liked by her teachers, liked by the boys, and liked by the Naval Academy, which accepted her into its class of 1985. I was impressed.

And then she became an astronaut. The same girl I took piano lessons with; the pal who came to my sweet 16th slumber party, looking angelic at the breakfast table in her pink robe; the classmate who stood next to me for a photo on '60s dress-up day senior year, flashing a smile and a peace sign. In July 2006, our high-school class Web site posted big news about Nowak, saying she had the only good excuse for not showing up at our 25th reunion picnic: she was serving as a mission specialist on the shuttle Discovery. What a life, and so perfectly timed. Nowak was born in May 1963, one month before Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. She graduated from high school in 1981, the year NASA's first shuttle, Columbia, took its maiden flight. And now, two and a half decades later, she was climbing aboard Discovery and rocketing into space. The Web site entry concluded, "Way to go Lisa!!"

Seven months later, Nowak's fairy tale splintered when her grim mug shot showed up on TV screens across America. The headline on our class Web site this time: "Out of character!" Or was it? Perfectionism may be a good thing when you're striving for A's in high school, but too much of it can poison minds and relationships and lives. Harvard's Alice Domar, who wrote the book Be Happy Without Being Perfect: How to Break Free From the Perfection Deception, has seen it countless times. Women who have it all—beauty, marriage, motherhood, career—but who stew in a misery of defeatism. Nowak's perfectionism was permanently broken when she had an affair with Oefelein. Now her rival, Shipman, turned Nowak's intense competitive drive into a dangerous obsession. She had to win, even if it meant defying the morals she'd grown up with and breaking the laws she'd so carefully abided by. "She could never just settle down and be happy," says Ahmed. (Article continued below...)

She certainly wasn't happy in 2007. After the confrontation with Shipman, Nowak received a slew of mental-health diagnoses. On the list: obsessive-compulsive disorder, a single episode of severe depression, insomnia, and Asperger's disorder. This last one, especially, caught my eye. I remember Lisa as a cheerful person with a ready smile, but she was also reserved and private and somewhat impenetrable. We took classes together, celebrated birthdays together, but I can't say she ever confided in me. Nor did she seem to take a huge amount of joy in the closeness and wonder of teenage friendship. Did any of this contribute to her fall? Was it simply jealousy, the "injured lover's hell" of Paradise Lost? Or could it have been the challenge of adapting to earth after space? Retired astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the moon, talks about this in his book Magnificent Desolation. Aldrin suffered years of depression and alcoholism after saluting the American flag on the lunar landscape. Space gave him a mission; life was a whole lot messier. He felt isolated and alone and questioned his purpose. "What am I doing? What is my role in life now?" he writes. "I realized that I was experiencing the 'melancholy of things done.' I had done all that I had ever set out to do."

Nowak was clearly debilitated when she set out on her fateful escapade. She'd lost weight, she hadn't been sleeping, she and her husband had split. And she'd never fully recovered from the loss of three colleagues in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster. She was under an "enormous amount of stress," her sister Andrea Rose said at the time. But it is still impossible to fathom how any of this made her do what she did. This is a case that speaks to at least one simple truth: the human soul is a mystery. In a preflight interview with NASA in 2006, Nowak was asked about the dangers of flight. "We can sit in one place and never go anywhere or do anything, but that's not what people are about. We have a drive to go and do things," she said. And "you can't explore and go and do things without taking some risk." But Nowak went too far. Colleen Shipman didn't deserve to be her victim. Nowak, who apologized to Shipman in court this week, seems to know this. "I hope very much that we can all move forward," she said, "with privacy and peace."