Astronaut Culture Stresses Achievement
Friday, February 9, 2007; 2:50 AM
WASHINGTON -- From the dawn of the space program, America's astronauts have been treated like stars, saluted as red-white-and-blue heroes, and indoctrinated in NASA's can-do, failure-is-not-an-option ethos. Could that explain the downfall of Lisa Nowak, the astronaut accused of attempted murder? Were the expectations too high? The pressures too great?
No one may ever know exactly why Nowak drove 900 miles to confront a woman who was reportedly her rival for the affections of a space shuttle pilot, but experts say the same traits that make astronauts such high achievers can combine to aggravate emotional problems and strain relationships.
"I really believe that NASA goes overboard in promoting how heroic and super all these people are," said Dr. Patricia Santy, a former NASA psychiatrist and author of the book "Choosing The Right Stuff."
"They themselves have forgotten these are ordinary people and in that kind of celebrity culture, there's a sense of entitlement."
Santy said the astronaut corps is "like a family, but it's almost like a dysfunctional family when it comes to understanding that these interpersonal issues have profound impacts."
Former astronaut Jerry Linenger said astronauts take pride in their self-discipline, "and you set a goal and it's just going, going, going and you let nothing get in your way."
That single-minded pursuit reminds Linenger of Nowak's drive from Houston to Orlando, Fla., to confront an Air Force captain from Florida who she allegedly believed was involved with the same space shuttle pilot she loved.
In a statement, officials at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida said the captain, Colleen Shipman, remained on duty and was "holding up well considering the circumstances."
However, Linenger said, that's when Nowak's training should have kicked in and led her to reflect on her actions: "To not make a midcourse correction is scary. It's just off her training and everything else."
Nowak, like many of her colleagues, pursued a career in spaceflight since childhood. Then, after her shuttle trip last summer, her goal had been achieved, and the prospects for another mission were dim, even though she remained in the prime of her life at age 43.
Space shuttles are scheduled to be retired in 2010, and many astronauts have been told that second and third spaceflights will be tough to get. A replacement spacecraft will not be ready until several years later.
Other astronauts have struggled with similar doubts about their future.