NASA plans to review psychological testing

Probe to check for warning signs in Nowak's behavior

February 08, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

After a bizarre case in which an astronaut stands accused of trying to kill an apparent romantic rival, NASA announced yesterday that it would conduct a thorough review of the psychological testing conducted on astronauts.

The investigation will also determine whether there were any signs in recent weeks of unusual behavior by Lisa M. Nowak, who was charged Tuesday with attempted murder. Police in Orlando, Fla., say the Naval Academy graduate and Rockville native stalked Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, who she believed was romantically linked to Cmdr. William A. Oefelein, a fellow astronaut.

"They want to look at Lisa Nowak's dealings and see if there were any indications that might have signaled this behavior and determine whether there are any changes that are needed to the testing and other criteria and the monitoring that's done, and whether there are any lessons to be learned and applied in the future," said Kelly Humphries, a spokesman at NASA's Johnson Space Center, where most astronauts work.

Humphries said all astronauts go through rigorous testing before they are admitted to the corps and receive extensive evaluations before flights, but there are no specific behavioral tests, a fact that retired astronauts and government behavioral screeners criticized as an obvious flaw.

Nowak returned to Texas on a commercial flight yesterday morning, and passengers said she looked "tired." She was accompanied by Steve Lindsey, who heads the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center and had traveled to Florida to offer her support.

Meanwhile, new details emerged about Nowak's interaction with Shipman in the months before police say Nowak confronted her early Monday at the Orlando International Airport.

According to a restraining order request filed shortly after the alleged incident, Shipman said Nowak had been "stalking" her for months and described her as an "acquaintance of boyfriend," apparently referring to Oefelein.

Orlando police say that Nowak, 43, drove 900 miles from her home near Houston, wearing a diaper so she would not have to stop to use a restroom, to meet Shipman, who was flying in on a commercial flight from Houston. Nowak was initially charged with attempted kidnapping and other counts related to the alleged incident about 3:50 a.m. Monday.

According to court documents, Nowak, dressed in a trench coat and wearing a black wig, followed Shipman from a parking shuttle to her car and squirted her with pepper spray.

The basis for the attempted murder charge was a black duffel bag that Nowak was carrying, packed with a steel mallet, high-powered BB gun and buck knife. Prosecutors allege that the weapons prove an intent to kill.

Nowak told police that she only wanted to speak to Shipman, and her lawyer argued in a bail hearing Tuesday that prosecutors were trying to "put a different spin on the same ball" in adding the attempted murder charge without new evidence.

Nowak and her husband of 19 years, Naval Academy graduate Richard Nowak, had separated in recent weeks. Yesterday, a neighbor, Bryan Lam, told the Associated Press that in November he heard the sounds of dishes being thrown inside the Nowak home and that police came. But Sgt. Nate McBuell, a spokesman for the Houston Police Department, said there has been only one call to the house in the past two years. On July 12, 2005, Lisa Nowak called police because her 3-year-old daughter had been missing for 30 minutes. She was later found.

Various active and retired astronauts said the allegations were a blow to a space program that had turned a corner after the Columbia disaster four years ago, although they urged the public not to rush to judgment about Nowak, who was a mission control specialist on Discovery's flight to the International Space Station in July

Charles F. Bolden Jr., a former astronaut and retired Marine major general who was an acquaintance of Nowak's, said he believed that the accusations would be difficult for any community, not just among astronauts.

"I was as surprised as anybody, but I've chosen to watch and wait and give everybody the benefit of the doubt," he said.

Still, others were frank about the need for additional screening.

Jerry Linenger, a former Naval flight surgeon and retired astronaut who flew on two shuttle missions and spent four months on the Russian Mir space station, warned that with talks under way about a years-long trip to Mars, it would be dangerous for someone to "snap like this" during the mission.

"An astronaut is probably the most studied human being by the time you go through your testing, your training," Linenger told the Associated Press. "I think there's still a lot of unknowns out there."

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, told CNN that NASA should closely monitor astronauts after missions as well as before.

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