Shocking descent for a woman of high achievement

Lisa M. Nowak

February 07, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

ROCKVILLE -- Pictures taken before Navy Capt. Lisa M. Nowak's space shuttle mission show her smiling and confident in an orange jumpsuit, with wavy tresses framing her face and an American flag and a model rocket ship behind her.

She is almost unrecognizable in a mug shot taken Monday: Her hair stringy, her brow furrowed, she stares at the camera with a strained expression. Some hours later, she wore a jumpsuit of a different color when she appeared in a Florida court facing charges of kidnapping and attempted murder.

It is a stunning descent for the lifelong high achiever, a 43-year-old mother of three with the job that thousands dream of and few reach. As the news spread yesterday, people who knew the test pilot and astronaut from her time at the Naval Academy and her high school years in Rockville remembered her as smart, athletic, pretty and popular.

They tried to make sense of the bizarre, sad story.

"It's totally something you would never have expected from Lisa. She was the nicest person you'd ever meet. It's a real shock to hear this," said Dennis Alloy, a childhood neighbor who graduated with Nowak from the now-closed Charles W. Woodward High School in 1981. Nowak was a co-valedictorian.

John Turnbull, a former classmate, said in an e-mail that he closely followed Nowak's space mission last summer.

"Nothing would change my view of her as an extremely bright, generous and unfailingly cheerful person," Turnbull wrote. "I have always thought of Lisa as hard-working and intelligent. She impressed on me last year that she is also quite brave."

Nowak's classmates set up a television at their 25th reunion at Cabin John Park in Montgomery County so they could watch Nowak's shuttle liftoff, which was initially scheduled for the same day though it was ultimately delayed, according to a glowing profile on Washingtonian.com.

"She had the only good excuse not to be at reunion. Way to go Lisa!!" someone posted in a note on the class Web site.

Nowak was enough of a star that her biography and other profiles are easy to find online and she was a sought-after speaker at area schools. Last fall, she visited her alma mater, Luxmanor Elementary, where excited students peppered her with questions about how she slept in space, what she ate and how long she had to go to school to become an astronaut, said Ryan Forkert, the school's principal intern.

Nowak grew up in a leafy suburban neighborhood, in a stately brick home with black shutters and a landscaped front lawn. The house, where her parents, Alfredo and Jane Caputo, still live, looks out - by coincidence - at an aerospace magnet middle school. A weary-looking man who answered the door there yesterday declined to comment.

Nowak, who was born in Washington and now lives near Houston, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in aerospace engineering in 1985, according to her official NASA biography. She was in the fifth class of woman at the academy, where she also competed on the track team. Academy officials confirmed her graduation yesterday but declined to comment further.

Nowak married a Naval Academy classmate and they raised three children while she rose through the ranks of the Navy, becoming a test pilot at a time when women in the military had far fewer opportunities.

She received master's degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and 11 years after leaving Annapolis, she made it to NASA - the pinnacle of any flight officer's career.

Initially, she was assigned technical duties and a communications role in the "mission control" room.

Then in July, she served as mission flight engineer on a mission that included a trip to the International Space Station. She operated the shuttle's robotic arm during several space walks and spent almost 13 days in space.

Her NASA biography also says that she has logged more than 1,500 flight hours in more than 30 kinds of aircraft and that she enjoys bicycling, running, skeet, sailing, gourmet cooking, rubber stamps, crossword puzzles, piano and African violets.

"I remember when I was about 5 years old the moon landing and watching those astronauts and I thought that was very exciting," Nowak said in a interview NASA posted before her first mission to space.

The best part of a mission "is knowing that I am contributing to our space effort," she said. "From a personal point of view, I've just heard how wonderful the view is from up there. ... Exploration is just part of our destiny. It's what we feel inside of us that we have to go and find out what more there is."

Nowak and her husband, who were married for 19 years, separated several weeks ago, her family said in a written statement released last night.

They described her as a "caring and dedicated" mother with a previously unblemished record.

"Considering both her personal and professional life, these alleged events are completely out of character and have come as a tremendous shock to our family. ... We are naturally saddened and extremely concerned about the serious allegations being made against Lisa. We love her very much, and right now, our primary focus is on her health and well-being."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Dan Lamothe and Brad Olson contributed to this article.

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