How did Lisa Nowak – a high school valedictorian, Naval Academy graduate, and a former NASA astronaut – go from being every little girl’s role model to a terrifying “loony-bin” who drove 900 miles in diapers to kidnap her lover’s girlfriend?
Some say working at NASA made her crack. Maybe flying into space and seeing Earth from such a distance drove her mad. The trip ignited an existential crisis that she struggled to bounce back from.
The unconventional love triangle between the NASA members, and Lisa’s frightening behavior, made headlines all over the world. “From astronaut to astro-nut” became the media’s favorite play of words. Sadly, Lisa’s dire psychological state was ridiculed and belittled.
Here’s the story.
As a kid, Lisa Nowak would look up at the sky and ponder the millions of stars, the bright moon, and the hot sun. She had dreams of becoming an astronaut at an age when most of us were still picking on each other for having cooties. “I vividly remember the moon landing and watching those astronauts, and I thought that was very exciting,” she mentioned in a 2005 interview.
She enrolled in the United States Naval Academy, where she dove deep into her studies of aerospace engineering, following it up with a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. In 1996, after a competitive selection process, Nowak’s wish came true – she was finally an astronaut.
Being an astronaut requires constant learning, researching, training, and time. Still, Nowak made sure never to let it compete with her desire to start a family or cultivate a loving relationship. She married Richard, a classmate from the Naval Academy, and gave birth to three kids.
She was proud of herself for being able to balance motherhood, romance, and work. “It’s definitely a challenge to do the flying and take care of even one child and do all the other things you have to do. But I learned that you can do it,” she told NBC.
On paper, she was living the perfect life. But lust, cravings, impulsiveness, and jealousy were about to tear her world apart.
Behind her blissful facade, problems were bubbling. In 2004, two years before flying into space, she fell head over heels for a fellow astronaut named William Oefelein. Unable to hold back, she gave into temptation and entangled herself in a steamy affair behind her husband’s back.
Oefelein, who was also married at the time, ended up divorcing his wife, and his bold move inspired Nowak to do the same. After 19 years, she parted ways with the father of her kids. It was a painful process to go through, but her hopes of building a life with Oefelein helped her keep her head above water.
Divorced and free to express her love for Oefelein, Nowak was eager for the future ahead. But she suffered a slap to the face when she found out that Oefelein wasn’t being faithful to her. As it turns out, while she was busy building plans for the two, he was busy making out with an Air Force Captain named Colleen Shipman.
Like a failed launch into space, her dreams of romance exploded and shattered into a million different pieces, each one floating farther and farther away from her, stripping her from her identity as a solid, functioning entity.
Oefelein knew he had disappointed her, but he had no idea how much. Unfortunately for him, he was about to find out.
Oefelein didn’t technically cheat on Nowak. He told her straight up that he was falling for Shipman and that the two were now exclusive, so there was no longer room for them to see each other anymore. Nowak felt understandably betrayed, humiliated, and miserable. She obsessed over the incident, day in and day out.
She became so obsessed that she ended up using a key Oefelein had once given her to his apartment to barge in and snoop around his personal belongings. She came across a loving exchange of emails between Shipman and Oefelein, with Shipman writing: “Will have to control myself when I see you. First urge will be to rip your clothes off, throw you on the ground, and love the hell out of you.”
Apart from the emails she discovered through her snooping, Nowak also learned that Shipman was on a flight from Houston to Orlando, and she knew exactly what time she was scheduled to land. And at that very moment, something snapped. She knew she had to get herself to the airport.
That’s how this seemingly healthy, smart, responsible, and talented young astronaut found herself on a 900-mile journey by car headed to Orlando International Airport. Frantic, sweating, confused, and clearly unstable, she spied on watched the waiting area as Shipman strolled into the airport at around 1 a.m.
Trying to disguise herself as much as possible, Nowak sported a wig and a trench coat and waited patiently for Shipman to pick up her delayed luggage. She then tip-toed behind her all the way into a shuttle bus which drove the passengers to the parking lot.
When Shipman stepped foot on the pavement, she glanced to her side and spotted Nowak, whose creepy outfit made her stand out. She rushed to her car, hoping that the weird-looking lady in a large coat wouldn’t follow her. Unfortunately, she did. Nowak shamelessly approached Shipman and asked for a ride, giving some ridiculous explanation that her “boyfriend” hadn’t shown up to the airport.
Shipman wasn’t willing to let her into the car. Instead, she told her she would call for some help. But the second Shipman cracked open the window, Nowak fired pepper spray all over her face. Miraculously, she was able to drive away, leaving the frenzied woman behind.
Nowak was soon approached by the police, who inspected her and discovered hundreds of dollars stashed in her pockets, as well as several printouts from Oefelein’s email account, a knife, gloves, a BB gun, rubber pipes, and a hammer. And in her car, they found a bunch of diapers.
According to the police, when they arrived at the scene, Nowak was in a frazzled state, wearing adult diapers and holding a can of pepper spray. When they asked her why she had diapers on, she answered that it was because she didn’t want to make bathroom stops on the way.
Later on, her lawyers would deny she wore any diapers and reported that the ones found in her car were toddler-sized and were there because she had stashed a few after she had to evacuate her home during hurricane season.
Whether or not she wore them in a state of madness, we’ll never know.
Initially, Shipman had no clue who the heck the woman who nearly blinded her out of the blue was. Police later informed her that the woman was named Lisa Nowek. And that’s when it hit her, she and Oefelein had once talked about his ex, and she also recalled how one time, Oefelein had mistakenly blurted out “Lisa” in bed.
After putting the pieces together, she phoned Oefelein to confirm whether she had reached the right conclusions about this frightening woman. Meanwhile, Nowak was in police custody. She hadn’t calmed down yet. If anything, her mental state after the arrest had gotten a lot worse.
A lot of people speculated that Nowak’s career in NASA took a toll on her health. Apart from the long hours, the stress, and the constant work, Nowak had experienced a devastating loss in her career. She lost her good friend, Laurel Clark, in 2003, when the shuttle Columbia crashed after suffering a severe blow to the wing.
Despite the psychological screening she went through at the start of her career, no follow-ups were done in the proceeding years. Moreover, Nowak knew that she would likely lose her spot in the program if she were to complain about any mental instabilities. So, she kept quiet.
But the silence closed in on her. It was painful. And many believe she snapped as a result of it.
People have also speculated that her 2006 space flight had shifted her perception of the world, of life, of her own existence entirely. Nowak knew this would likely be her one and only flight into outer space (so many more astronauts were waiting to fly at the time), and she had a hard time coming down from it.
In Lucy in the Sky, a 2019 film centering around Nowak’s story, her character says, “I just feel a little off. You go up there, you see the whole universe, and everything here looks so small.”
While there’s no definite explanation as to what really caused that loony drive of hers all the way to the airport, it’s clear that having her friend die, as well as seeing how small our planet is in the grand scheme of things, caused her to go loco.
Nowak was charged with burglary with assault and attempted murder. Due to her respectable career, her trial made headlines. She was the first active astronaut with felony charges. Her legal team filed an insanity plea in return, explaining that she had been suffering from OCD, insomnia, and depression for months before the attack.
Ultimately, after several trials, her legal counsel coerced her into pleading guilty to burglary, and luckily for her, seeing as she was a first-time offender, the judge decided to go easy on her. He gave her one year of probation and community service.
Shipman, on the other hand, was less than pleased with the court’s ruling. She was convinced that Nowak had tried to kill her and that if she hadn’t been able to drive away, she would have probably been hammered, shot, strangled, and lying six feet underground.
“It was in her eyes,” she told the court, “a blood-chilling expression of limitless rage and glee.” Moreover, the incident had left Shipman in a state of shock. She suffered from recurring nightmares and dizzying flashbacks that would hit her in the middle of the day.
NASA let her go a month after the assault on Shipman, and by June of 2007, Nowak was officially released and given an “other than honorable” discharge. And while she managed to have her criminal case sealed and put in the past, we’re sure that the memories, both hers and Shipman’s, will live on.
If there’s one good thing that came out of Nowak’s unfortunate case, it is that NASA decided to integrate annual psychological screenings for all astronauts, regardless of their seniority. Hopefully, her troubling behavior will spare other astronauts from going astro-nuts.
When news broke of the incident, not one person was left unbaffled. Lisa Nowak’s behavior threw EVERYONE off. “I was very surprised… She always seemed very normal to me,” said her neighbor, Candis Silva. Silva shared she always felt Nowak was “a good role model” for her daughters.
But what her neighbors didn’t see was how she was crumbling under the pressures of her hectic career. “All those stresses can conspire to be overwhelming. … Clearly, she suffered a lot of mental anguish,” said former NASA flight surgeon Jon Clark (who lost his wife, Laurel, in the 2003 Columbia accident).
Jon Clark told NBC news he sympathized with Nowak because, being married to an astronaut himself, he knew how tough it was to keep a marriage in a healthy shape. “There is a lot of marital stress in the astronaut corps in general — a huge amount,” he revealed.
As to her affair, he added that it’s pretty common for relationships to shift and change. In addition, he mentioned that women normally have more pressure placed on them and that they make more sacrifices due to motherhood.
Today, Nowak lives in Texas and works in the private sector. She leads a pretty private life and refuses to be interviewed. Not much has been reported about her since the incident other than that she divorced her husband back in 2008.
Shipman and Oefelein ended up tying the knot and moving to Alaska, where they live with their son. They reportedly launched a website called Adventure Write, which focuses on getting kids excited about writing.
In 2017, Shipman broke her silence and said that time hasn’t healed all wounds. She still suffers from anxiety and admits: “I’m always looking over my shoulder.”
The feature film Lucy in the Sky was inspired by Lisa Nowak and revolves around a fictional astronaut named Lucy Cola, whose life is turned upside down after her first flight to space. The movie follows Cola as she works hard to achieve her goals, but at the expense of her mental health.
The film’s director, Noah Hawley, told Space.com that the movie was intended to tell the story of Nowak’s interior journey. In reality, yes, she was flying to outer space, but the real shift in her life occurred deep inside her mind.
There are certain things Hawley preferred to leave out. Like the fact that Nowak had three kids. He knew that it would be difficult for the audience to feel compassion towards the fictional character of Lucy if she was not only cheating on her husband but on her kids as well.
“I don’t think we need to burden the story with [children] because the number of people who are just going to say, ‘I’m out’ is much bigger,” he explained. He also shared that he wished people were more forgiving towards Nowak, and that “What we should get from our community is empathy and support and understand the fact that this is a tragic story, it’s not a punchline.”
Hawley had to make sure he wasn’t portraying Lucy as a hysterical, “typical woman” who was going loco over a man. He wanted to highlight that the emphasis here wasn’t on losing it over a guy but slowly falling apart due to an existential crisis sparked by an extraordinary trip into space.
He said it was essential to make empowering stories about women, but, in the same breath, we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up about their failures. “You know, Brad Pitt [in the film Ad Astra] gets to go into space and have an existential crisis, and you like the movie or you don’t like the movie, but you never question its right to exist,” he explained.
In an interview with the L.A. Times, Director Noah Hawley shared that he kept the diapers found in Nowak’s car out of the film’s script. He said that it “just didn’t fit into the story.” Hawley added that he felt like her experience had been reduced to somewhat of a joke, and that he didn’t want to add to that.”
Viewers who weren’t very pleased with his decision ranted about it on Twitter and posted things like “WHY would you make a movie about the Diaper Astronaut and then take the diaper part out?”
“To allow her to retain her dignity,” he shot back.
Natalie Portman, the film’s leading lady, explained that the way she saw it, Lucy’s flight into space was an experience which made her feel more alive than ever, yet part of it also made her realize “how small we are and how meaningless perhaps everything we care about in the universe is,” she said at the film’s press day.
Portman added that even though most of humanity hasn’t been to space, it’s still possible for us to relate to Lucy, whose real struggle in the film is the struggle for meaning. “It’s the most human thing we can all relate to even though we haven’t been to space,” she said.
What made the making of Lucy in the Sky incredibly interesting was how Lucy’s character evolved as the filming progressed. Certain lines that Hawley believed were appropriate in the beginning no longer suited Lucy’s personality.
“There’s a moment in the pickup truck where Lucy and Mark kiss and she says, ‘Sorry, I don’t know why I did that,’” Hawley elaborated, “But, once I got to know Lucy, I thought, ‘She wouldn’t apologize for anything.’ She sees the moment. That was fascinating to see the character come alive and adjust the script accordingly.”
If there’s something the public got a kick out of, it was focusing on the fact she had diapers in her car (her lawyers claimed they were toddler diapers, but some people insist they were adult-sized ones). In any case, Lisa’s story was often ridiculed and portrayed as some sad joke.
Interestingly, the director of Lucy in the Sky, Noah Hawley, pointed out that the film “The Joker” was released at around the same time, and, from the looks of it, when it comes to a man losing his mind, he’s shown as this capital J “cool” Joker, and when a woman breaks down, she just becomes a simple, small, lettered joke.
The way the incident played out in the film is very different than how it happened in real life. In the movie, Lucy heads to the San Diego airport instead of Orlando, and she does so to confront Mark (the fictional William Oefelein). In real life, she confronted Shipman, or, in the film, Erin.
In the movie, Lucy doesn’t travel alone to the airport, she’s accompanied by her niece, and she also doesn’t pepper spray Erin, she sprays Mark. Portman confirmed that the film isn’t specifically based on Lisa Nowak’s life but is simply inspired by it.
Noah Hawley said he sent Portman a few articles about crazy journeys, like of a person who went to the Antarctic three times and ended up dying on the third, and another story of a man who solo kayaked the Atlantic Ocean, going back and forth until he got restless.
He did so to help Portman get into the head of a person who has reached radical heights. He wanted her to try and picture what it would be like to do such crazy deeds, to feel such insane feelings. How difficult it must be to live life regularly after those types of experiences.
Lucy’s behavior can’t be explained in simple terms like “oh, childhood trauma.” According to Natalie Portman, things like sleep deprivation, gender-based discrimination at work, unfairness, and the return from space are additional factors to her meltdown.
“Every person is a unique constellation of issues, to put it in space terms,” Natalie told Collider. “We are each unique points of specificities, and our behavior is a result of all of those complicated things. It’s not one input. So, yes, that was absolutely an element, but there is no one central element. It’s just a collection.”
The actors of the film were lucky enough to visit NASA and talk it up with the astronauts there who shared the pros and cons of working in the field. For starters, it’s physically hard to come back from space because, apparently, trying to pick up your foot after being used to no gravity is an ordeal.
Secondly, the intoxication of being out there and seeing Earth from such a perspective can easily shake up a person’s well-being. They described it as taking a strong, strong hit; it was tough having to live with the effects of coming down, day by day.
Several critics felt that Lucy in the Sky was a messy, unfocused, distracted portrayal of what was supposed to be a very serious and moving story. Instead, the tone was uncertain and the scenes too “glamourized and showy” with an overall lack of believability.
With a host of talented actors, it came as a surprise to the filmmakers that viewers weren’t satisfied with the result. Noah Hawley came to terms with his directorial flop, and said he was “okay with not being liked,” adding that “Not everything’s going to be for everybody.”