With Discipline Honed by Training, Police Say, Astronaut Set Out to Kill

By Peter Whoriskey and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

ORLANDO, Feb. 6 -- She prepared for the 950-mile drive from Houston with the discipline of someone who had flown 13 days in space. The steel mallet, folding knife and rubber tube were all catalogued on a handwritten list, police say. She had maps, she had bus schedules and she had a disguise. Thinking like an astronaut, she brought diapers to avoid bathroom stops.

Lisa M. Nowak set off for Orlando International Airport seven months after the July 4 launch of the shuttle Discovery, her first trip to space, and probably her last.

The NASA astronaut and Navy captain from Rockville was charged Tuesday with the attempted murder in Orlando of an apparent rival for the affections of another astronaut. Nowak, one of 46 women to fly in a space shuttle, is now the first active astronaut to be arrested on a felony charge. She left an Orlando jail Tuesday afternoon with her jacket pulled over her head.

Police said Nowak, 43, stalked the younger woman, 30-year-old Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, at an airport parking lot early Monday, dressed in a dark wig, glasses and a tan hooded trench coat. Unable to gain Shipman's confidence, police said, she sprayed her with pepper spray through Shipman's partially open car window before the car sped away.

According to a charging document, she intended to confront Shipman about her relationship with Navy Cmdr. William A. Oefelein, an astronaut who, like Nowak, is based at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Nowak, who is married with a teenage son and twin daughters, told police she and Oefelein had "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship," according to the document. Nowak carried with her e-mails from Shipman to Oefelein.

In a request Shipman filed for an injunction against Nowak, Shipman said she had been stalked for about two months.

Neither Shipman nor Oefelein could be reached by phone Tuesday. Oefelein, born in Fort Belvoir, is 41 and has two children. He piloted Discovery to the international space station in December.

Nowak might have been planning the confrontation as early as Jan. 23, the day she printed the maps she used to navigate from Texas to Florida, according to a police affidavit. She had obtained a copy of Shipman's flight plans to Orlando.

The affidavit provides this account:

Nowak checked into a La Quinta Inn in Orlando under a false name, stashed her car and set off to meet Shipman's midnight flight from Houston to Orlando. The younger officer was returning to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.

Shipman picked up her luggage, which was late, about 3 a.m. As she waited for the bus to the airport satellite parking lot, Nowak lingered at a nearby taxi stop, wearing the wig and a trench coat. When Shipman boarded the bus, Nowak boarded, too. She got off where Shipman did. Nowak was armed with a steel mallet, a buck knife and a BB gun that resembled a real 9mm semiautomatic handgun. The BB gun was loaded with pellets and was set to fire, according to the affidavit.

Walking to her car, Shipman sensed a threat. She heard "running footsteps" behind her. She jumped into her car, locking the door.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company