»  National Review Online

February 9th, 2007

  Fly Me to the Moon


It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory —
A case of do or die …

So it is, even in the Astronaut Corps, apparently. I am writing here, of course, about the arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak. Ms. Nowak was trying to kill — or at least abduct, but see below — fellow astronaut Colleen Shipman. Ms. Shipman has been dating the third astronaut in this story, Bill Oefelein, to whom Ms. Nowak was emotionally attached. What did I just write? Let's not be mealy-mouthed here: "Emotionally attached" fiddlesticks: she loved the guy to distraction — to dementia, in fact.

The ages here — I happen to think they are very important numbers in cases like this, and don't understand why you always have to pick through the news stories to find them — are as follows: Ms. Nowak (arrested) 43; Ms. Shipman (intended victim) 30; Mr. Oefelein (love object) 41. Marital statuses: Ms. Nowak, separated a few weeks ago, three children; Ms. Shipman, single; Mr. Oefelein, divorced 2005, two children.

As a crime of passion, Ms. Nowak's little adventure was a bust, proving — I hope I'm not going to set off NRO's newly-installed Larry Summers alarm here — that women are not actually very good at this sort of thing.

Ms. Nowak figured out, or learned by reading crime fiction, one essential and important truth for anyone planning a hit on a personal enemy, viz., that a fit human being — we should hope that Ms. Shipman and all our other astronauts are very fit — is at his or her most vulnerable when sitting in the driver's seat of an automobile with the window down. Lots of tempting body parts — throat, carotid arteries, eyes, brain — are right there, waiting to be assaulted. The victim's hands and arms are poorly placed for defense, having little leverage, and often being further constrained by seat belt entanglements. The only time a fit person is more vulnerable is when asleep. That won't do, however, for a passion crime like this one. The killer wants to make herself known. She wants the victim to know: "Hey, this is me doing this to you! And you know why, don't you? And here it comes, you **%@!&?*!!"

Hence the modus operandi. Knowing that her love rival was on a flight into Orlando, Ms. Nowak drove there from Houston — a 950-mile trip, necessitating the now-famous astro-diapers. She followed Ms. Shipman to the airport parking lot, wearing a disguise — dark glasses, wig, trench coat — that must have made her conspicuous from low orbit. With Ms. Shipman sitting in her car in the approved, vulnerable position, Ms. Nowak tapped on her window.

Alas, Ms. Nowak had forgotten that the rest of us read crime fiction, too. Your vulnerability when sitting in a stationary car can be annulled rather easily by not opening your window. Ms. Shipman did actually open her window a sliver. Ms. Nowak let fly with some pepper spray, Ms. Shipman drove off to a toll booth for help. Mission abort!

The officers who subsequently (and quickly and easily — I repeat, women aren't very good at this stuff) arrested Ms. Nowak logged the following among her possessions at the scene: a four-inch folding knife, a brand-new steel mallet, an air-powered BB gun, pepper spray, six latex gloves, 4 feet of rubber tubing and several large garbage bags. I don't think any great effort of imagination is needed to see what she had in mind. It doesn't look to me like "abduction," which is what the newspapers are very carefully saying. Ms. Nowak intended homicide. To judge from the latex gloves (no prints) and disguise, she thought she might get away with it, too.

(And look at that steel mallet. Perhaps she had thought through the window problem, and planned to use the mallet to smash the window if it wasn't opened. I can't think of any other reason she'd carry it. It's wellnigh impossible to swing a mallet at someone sitting in a car. The BB gun, however, is a mystery to me.)


Is there something peculiar to the culture of NASA that might be a causative, or at least contributing, factor here?

Well, there are things that come to mind. An astronaut training program, like a movie set, is a place where young, fit, and bright people — and therefore mostly attractive: it's not easy to be young, fit, bright, and repulsive — are bonded together in a common enterprise. Furthermore, the astronauts, unlike the movie stars, face great danger — 14 deaths in 117 flights so far, worse than one chance in 60 of a gruesome death far, far from any help. Danger is a terrific aphrodisiac. If the level of hanky-panky among astronauts were not way higher than it is among, oh, say, the staff of a political magazine, these would not be red-blooded American guys and gals.

Worse yet, these fired-up young athletes, the adrenalin chasing the endorphins round their circulatory systems, have not much they can do with their fired-upness. There go maximum seven career astronauts to a shuttle flight — "maximum" because there may be a "payload specialist" or two in there, and these folk are not counted as career astronauts. NASA currently has 96 career astronauts on payroll. On the optimistic assumption that the shuttle gets back up to its former five or six missions a year, say 40 career-astronaut-rides a year, there's a lot of standing around in those numbers. (Actual numbers of flights working backwards through the past seven years, 2006-2000, were: 3, 1, 0, 1*, 5, 6, 5. That asterisk was the Columbia disaster of February 2003.) The Devil makes work for idle hands.

I must say, though, that for all the horrors I can glimpse (I think) inside Ms. Nowak's head, and for all the sadness, all those bewildered faces of children, that must be behind the stories of her separation and Mr. Oefelein's divorce (both of which are apparently connected to the present story), I am aware of something more than mere ghoulish curiosity when I'm reading about this case.

In a way, and with due respect to all the negatives noted above, the Nowak-Oefelein-Shipman story is reassuring. When the idea of human beings in space first passed into the realm of the possible, we all thought that the stresses and rigors involved would require Spock-like automatons. The first astronauts weren't actually much like that, but they weren't much like ourselves, either. They were mainly steel-nerved über-jocks, white and male and military, from country towns in states nobody ever went to.

Now here we are a generation later with an astronaut corps that not only looks like America — the faces on a NASA flight-promotional picture are as exquisitely balanced by race and sex as those you'll see in a college prospectus — but behaves like it, too, with all the suburban angst and fortysomething dysfunction the rest of us are vexed with. These are human beings!

I am not, to put it very mildly indeed, a fan of NASA or its manned space program. If we must have a taxpayer-funded Astronaut Corp, though, I am glad to know that it is rich in the sort of material that has nourished novels, plays, poems, and songs for the past three thousand years.

Andrea Peyser, writing in the New York Post, sneers at Ms. Nowak as "the Amy Fisher of the space program." No, nothing so tawdry, Andrea. This is an astronaut we're talking about. Leave her some measure of grandeur even in her sins and follies. I prefer to think of Ms. Nowak as NASA's Medea — fierce, mad, and dangerous, in an awful, but all too human, tradition.

Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate …