Lisa Marie Nowak (née Caputo, born May 10, 1963) is an American engineer, former naval flight officer and NASA astronaut. Born in Washington, D.C., she was selected by NASA in 1996 and qualified as a mission specialist in robotics. Nowak flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery during the STS-121 mission in July 2006, where she was responsible for operating the robotic arms of the shuttle and the International Space Station.
On February 5, 2007, she was arrested in Orlando, Florida, and subsequently charged with the attempted kidnapping of U.S. Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, who was romantically involved with astronaut William Oefelein. Nowak was released on bail, and initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, which included attempted kidnapping, burglary with assault, and battery. Her assignment to the space agency as an astronaut was terminated by NASA effective March 8, 2007. On November 10, 2009, Nowak agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to charges of felony burglary of a car and misdemeanor battery.
Nowak remained a Navy captain until August 2010, when a naval board of inquiry, composed of three admirals, voted unanimously to reduce Nowak in rank to commander and to discharge her from the Navy under other than honorable conditions.
Early life and education
Lisa Nowak is the daughter of Alfredo and Jane Caputo of Rockville, Maryland.
In 1969, as a six-year-old watching the Apollo moon landings, Nowak first became interested in the space program. While growing up, she continued to follow the Space Shuttle program, particularly the introduction of female astronauts.
In 1981, Nowak graduated from Charles W. Woodward High School in Rockville, Maryland.
In 1985, Nowak received her Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering from the United States Naval Academy.
In 1992, Nowak earned both a Master of Science degree in aeronautical engineering and a degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
In 1985, Nowak received her commission in the United States Navy.
In 1987, Nowak became a Naval Flight Officer via the Tactical Navigation syllabus at Training Squadron 86 (VT-86) at NAS Pensacola, Florida. Nowak was then assigned to Electronic Warfare Aggressor Squadron 34 (VAQ-34) at NAS Point Mugu, California, where she flew both the EA-7L and ERA-3B aircraft, supporting the U.S. Pacific Fleet in small and large-scale exercises with jamming and missile profiles.
In 1993, Nowak was selected for transfer to the Restricted Line as an Aerospace Engineering Duty Officer, and to attend the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland.
After graduating from the Naval Postgraduate School, Nowak stayed at Patuxent River working as an aircraft systems project officer at the Air Combat Environment Test and Evaluation Facility and at Strike Aircraft Test Squadron, flying in the F/A-18 and EA-6B. She was then assigned to the Naval Air Systems Command, working on acquisition of new systems for naval aircraft, when she was selected for the astronaut program.
Nowak logged over 1,500 hours of flight in over 30 different aircraft during her career in the Navy.
While in the Navy, Nowak was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, the Navy Achievement Medal, and other service awards.
On 20 August 2010, after a review of the circumstances of the legal case, a panel of three U.S. Navy admirals recommended that she be discharged from the Navy and her rank reduced from Captain to Commander. Her service was classified as "other than honorable".
Nowak was selected to be an astronaut in 1996 and entered the NASA Astronaut Corps at Johnson Space Center in August of that year. She qualified as a mission specialist in robotics, and was assigned to a future mission designated STS-118. After schedule changes, she instead went into space on July 4, 2006, as a member of the STS-121 crew assigned to the International Space Station. Nowak served as mission flight engineer, operated the Shuttle's robotic arm during several spacewalks, and logged almost 13 days in space. For her work as a member of the crew of STS-121, NASA announced on May 30, 2007, Nowak's selection to receive the NASA Space Flight Medal at Johnson Space Center on June 5, 2007.
On February 6, 2007, following an arrest in Florida for attempted kidnapping, Nowak was placed on 30-day leave by NASA. She returned to Houston, Texas, on a commercial airline flight the next day and upon arrival was reportedly taken immediately under police escort to the Johnson Space Center for medical and psychiatric evaluation. Nowak's assignment to NASA as a serving Navy officer was terminated by the space agency on March 7, 2007.
Nowak remained on active duty with the Navy and was subsequently ordered to work on the staff of the chief of Naval Air Training at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas. There, she was involved in the development of flight training curricula for broad use throughout the Navy.
Naval officials waited for her kidnapping case to be resolved before taking further action against her. Military law experts have stated that, while the Navy rarely brings charges against officers for adultery, it is seen as conduct unbecoming an officer, as it demonstrates bad judgment.
In 2017, at the age of 54, Nowak was reported to be living in Texas and working in the "private sector". Her attorney stated: "She's doing well."
Nowak married Richard T. Nowak, a classmate at both the U.S. Naval Academy and naval flight school, in 1988. Richard Nowak was employed by a contractor to NASA at Johnson Space Center while concurrently continuing to fly for the Navy as an officer in the Naval Air Reserve. The Nowaks have three children, a son born in 1992 and twin daughters born in 2001. A statement from the family indicated that the Nowaks separated in January 2007 and subsequently divorced.
Immediately following William Oefelein's divorce, he and Lisa Nowak became involved with each other. Their affair lasted two years, with Oefelein beginning to break it off gradually near the end of 2006. It was during this time that Oefelein started a relationship with Colleen Shipman, who was working as an engineer with the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.
Charges of attempted kidnapping at Orlando Airport
Nowak drove from Houston to Orlando, Florida, on February 4–5, 2007. She packed latex gloves, a black wig, a BB pistol and ammunition, pepper spray, a hooded tan trench coat, a 2-pound (0.91 kg) drilling hammer, black gloves, rubber tubing, plastic garbage bags, approximately $585 in cash, her computer, an 8-inch (200 mm) Gerber folding knife and several other items before driving the 900 miles (1,400 km) to Florida. Early police reports indicated she wore Maximum Absorbency Garments during the trip, but she later denied wearing them. On February 5, 2007, Nowak went to the Orlando International Airport, waited for about an hour in the baggage claim, and then proceeded to the airport parking lot, where she located and confronted Colleen Shipman, who had just arrived from Houston by plane.
Shipman said that after arriving, she was aware of someone following her to an airport satellite parking area. When she got into her car, she heard running footsteps and quickly locked the door. Nowak slapped the window and tried to open the car door, asked for a ride, then started crying. Shipman rolled down the window a couple of inches after which Nowak sprayed the pepper spray into the car. Shipman drove off to the parking lot booth where police were summoned. Several Orlando Police Department Airport Division officers arrived minutes later, with the first officer observing Nowak throwing a bag into the trash at a parking shuttle bus stop. Nowak was subsequently arrested at Orlando International Airport on charges of attempted kidnapping, battery, attempted vehicle burglary with battery, and destruction of evidence. In a handwritten request for a restraining order against Nowak after her arrest, Shipman referred to Nowak as an acquaintance of a boyfriend but did not identify Oefelein, and also claimed Nowak had been stalking her for two months. Nowak told investigators she was involved in a relationship with Oefelein which she described as being "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship". Citing evidence of elaborate planning, disguises and weapons, police recommended she be held without bail.
Two fellow astronauts traveled to Florida for Nowak's arraignment to assist authorities and NASA personnel as needed: Captain Christopher Ferguson, the senior active duty Naval Officer in the NASA Astronaut Corps at the time, went as Nowak's commanding officer, and retired Air Force Colonel Steven Lindsey, who was the commander of Nowak's shuttle mission, STS-121, went as Chief of the Astronaut Office, the senior astronaut at NASA. On February 6, 2007, both appeared before a judge on her behalf. The state's attorney argued that the facts indicated a well thought out plan to kidnap and perhaps to injure Shipman. While arguing for pre-trial release Nowak's attorney remarked, "One's good works must count for something". Nowak was ordered released on $15,500 bail under the condition she wear a GPS tracking device and not contact Shipman; however, before Nowak could be released, Orlando police charged Nowak with attempted first-degree murder and announced she would not be released on bail. Her lawyer alleged that police and prosecutors, unhappy that Nowak had been granted bail, pressed more serious charges solely to keep her confined to jail. In the second arraignment Nowak was charged with attempted first-degree murder with a deadly weapon, for which the judge raised bail by $10,000. After posting bail, Nowak was released from jail. Shipman dropped her request for a protection order on February 15.
There was widespread reaction to Nowak's arrest with concerns expressed about NASA's astronaut selection and screening process and planned 30-month missions to Mars. Some indicated that NASA's presentation of astronauts as heroes is part of the problem because of the social pressure. Some perceived her treatment in the criminal process as lenient. Others have been shocked that her criminal behavior has been the subject of parody.
NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin commissioned the NASA Astronaut Health Care System Review Committee, an independent panel, to examine how well NASA attended to the mental health of its astronauts. The initial report released by the panel raised questions in regards to possible alcohol use prior to flight. The report, however, offered no specifics, no facts to substantiate the claims, and stated that no attempt to confirm or investigate the allegations had been performed.
Shuttle Commander Scott Kelly was vocal in his criticism of the report during interviews prior to STS-118, stating it was beyond his comprehension that astronauts would ever consider what was suggested. Following the release of the independent panel report, NASA ordered an internal review, The Space Flight Safety Review.
On August 29, 2007, Chief Safety and Mission Assurance Officer Bryan O'Connor reported that after the month-long review, NASA found there was no evidence to verify the independent panel's report that astronauts have been allowed to fly drunk. Additionally, investigation into all incident reports dating from 1984 to 2007, found no incident involving alcohol or drug use. The report's findings specifically stated:
The culture of professionalism in today's astronaut corps, along with the highly visible, structured and supervised schedule during the last several days prior to launch, provide reasonable controls to avoid flying an alcohol-impaired crewmember. In light of all the other controls in place on launch day, the L-0 flight surgeon check provides a reasonable likelihood of identifying signs of illness or impairment of the level that would threaten flight safety.
In response to the internal review, policies at NASA would be changed in a variety of ways: flight surgeons would be present during the pre-mission suit-up activities, flight surgeons would receive additional training in psychiatric evaluation, and although there was an unofficial code of conduct in place, an official "Code of Conduct" would be written up for employees.
Evidence released before trial
On April 10, 2007, Florida prosecutors released additional material in the case. The previous week, the trial judge had agreed to unseal some of the documents that described items found in Nowak's car after her arrest. Among these items were a handwritten note on USS Nimitz stationery listing Shipman's flight information and "Flight Controller's Log" paper with a handwritten list of more than 24 items, including sneakers, plastic gloves, contacts, cash, an umbrella, and black sweats. A floppy disk contained two photographs of Nowak riding in a bicycle race, and 15 images depicting an unidentified woman in different stages of undress. An evidence report dated March 15 indicated that nearly all of the photographs and drawings depicted scenes of bondage. Also found were $585.00 (USD) and £41.00 (GBP) in cash and 4 brown paper bags with 69 orange pills that were not publicly identified. Investigators also examined two USB drives found in the car. They contained family pictures, digital movies, and NASA-related materials. Investigators concluded that the information on the disk and USB drives did not have any direct relationship to the alleged kidnapping attempt.
Oefelein reportedly provided Nowak with a cell phone to communicate with him. Phone records show that she called him at least 12 times, and sent 7 text messages the day after he returned from his shuttle flight on December 22 that he did not retrieve until December 24 when they had a 7-minute conversation. During December and January, over 100 calls were recorded, although it is unclear who called whom. Under questioning by NASA and military investigators, Oefelein reportedly stated that he had broken off the relationship with Nowak. He did, however, have her to lunch in his apartment at least once in January, they continued to train together for a bicycle race, and they also went to the gym together.
On May 11, 2007, authorities released a surveillance video from the Orlando International Airport terminal purporting to show Nowak waiting for nearly an hour, standing near the baggage claim, then donning a trench coat and later following Shipman after she retrieved her bags.
Developments in case
On February 13, 2007, Nowak pleaded not guilty to the charges of attempted murder and attempted kidnapping. On March 2, Florida prosecutors filed three formal charges against Nowak: (1) attempted kidnapping with intent to inflict bodily harm or terrorize, (2) burglary of a conveyance with a weapon, and (3) battery. The prosecutors declined to file the attempted murder charge that had been recommended by Orlando police. Nowak formally entered a plea of not guilty to the kidnapping charges on March 22 at an arraignment hearing although she was not present in person. Nowak's attorney, who filed the plea with the Orange County court, requested a jury trial. The trial was originally due to commence on July 30, 2007, but was postponed until April 7, 2008, to allow the prosecution time to prepare for an anticipated insanity defense. On January 16, 2008, a judge postponed the trial, as well as the pre-trial hearing to be held on March 12, 2008, indefinitely, pending the outcome of the state's appeal of an earlier decision to suppress evidence obtained on the day of her arrest.
A pre-trial hearing was held on July 17, 2007, and further hearings were to be held on September 19, to argue defense motions to suppress some of the evidence obtained on the day of her arrest. On August 12, 2007, Nowak asked to have her GPS ankle bracelet removed, which the judge agreed to on August 30. On August 28, the trial judge unsealed a court document indicating that Nowak intended to pursue an insanity defense. According to documents submitted by her lawyer, Nowak was evaluated by two psychiatrists who diagnosed her with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, Asperger syndrome, a single episode of major depressive disorder and a "brief psychotic disorder with marked stressors" at the time of the incident. On November 2, 2007, the trial judge suppressed Nowak's initial (pre-Miranda) statements to police, as well as all evidence found in her vehicle, citing police misconduct in their initial search and questioning. The prosecution appealed that ruling on November 8. A hearing on that appeal occurred on October 21, 2008.
On December 5, 2008, the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal held that her statements were taken in violation of her Miranda rights, but that the search of her car was still valid under the inevitable discovery exception to the search warrant requirement because the police would have inevitably found it in the normal course of the investigation despite her illegal statement. The case was sent back for trial. A pre-trial status hearing was scheduled for June 22, 2009. On April 1, 2009, the judge ordered Nowak to undergo two psychiatric evaluations before June 12, 2009.
On May 15, 2009, it was reported that Nowak would not claim insanity if her case ever went to trial. Nowak's attorney withdrew a previous motion filed in 2007, which would have left open the opportunity to use an insanity defense in the case. On October 7, 2009, a judge in Orlando ruled in favor of allowing Nowak's attorneys to take a second deposition from Shipman to inquire whether Nowak actually pepper-sprayed Shipman. A medical report by paramedics raised some questions according to Nowak's attorneys as to the factual basis for it. If it was found not to have occurred, Nowak's attorneys wanted the criminal charges related to the assault and battery to be dropped before trial began. The trial was scheduled for December 7, 2009. On November 10, 2009, Nowak entered a guilty plea to felony burglary and misdemeanor battery. She was sentenced to a year's probation and the two days already served in jail, with no additional jail time.
On August 19, 2010, a Naval administrative panel of three admirals voted to recommend Nowak be separated from the U.S. Navy with an "other than honorable" discharge and that her rank be reduced from Captain to Commander. The panel's recommendation would be reviewed by the Naval Personnel Command and would ultimately be determined by the Secretary of the Navy.
In March 2011, Nowak petitioned the court to seal the record of her criminal proceedings, citing harm to her family and their livelihood. The motion was granted. On July 28, 2011, Assistant Secretary of Navy Juan M. Garcia III said in a statement that Nowak would retire with an "other than honorable" discharge and her pay grade would be reduced one rank.
In popular culture
Parts of Nowak's story—including a love triangle amongst astronauts and the reported wearing of adult diapers during a long-distance drive—inspired the 2007 Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Rocket Man".
The 2008 Molly Lewis song "Road Trip" recounts the details of early news reports about Nowak's trip from Houston to Orlando.
The Ben Folds song "Cologne" from his 2008 album Way to Normal references Nowak's tabloid coverage where she "put on a pair of diapers to kill her boyfriend."
Nowak's state of mind during the incident was the subject of a play, Starcrosser's Cut, which opened in Los Angeles in June 2013.
In the 2017 film Rough Night, the male protagonist Peter is recommended by his friends to enact the "Sad Astronaut", clearly referencing Nowak's road journey from Houston to Orlando, Florida. A specific element of Nowak's journey (wearing of the adult diapers, which Nowak has since denied), is a plot point utilized in the movie, that has been cited as one of the film's most defining moments.
The 2019 film Lucy in the Sky starring Natalie Portman is loosely based on Nowak's experiences.