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Nowak’s Actions Shouldn’t Bring Disrepute Or Punishment On NASA

By | February 12, 2007

      The alleged actions of astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, while shocking, will not and should not damage support for NASA and the U.S. role in space, either in congressional committees with jurisdiction or among the American public.

      Despite the sneering, snarky jokes about Nowak and the space program, one hopes it should be clear to both Washington policymakers and voters alike that her regrettable actions were those of one lone individual who became unhinged.

      And her desperate, dangerous and violent actions, if proven in a court of law, will be seen as caused by mental illness (what sane person would risk throwing away her Olympian status as an astronaut), rather than being precipitated by her occupation, her job as a laborer in the heavens.

      Some commentators have mused aloud or in print whether the pressures of being an astronaut caused Nowak to snap, implying that NASA pushes astronauts too hard.


      What Nowak allegedly did, though bizarre, is similar to horrific acts of desperately infatuated people throughout recorded history, and before.

      People took similar criminal steps against romantic rivals long before the space age began, before the age of flight.

      The facts, repeated ad nauseam on front pages of newspapers, on the air, in magazines and more, are well known.

      Nowak, a married mother of three and Navy captain, apparently was attracted to another astronaut, William “Billy” Oefelein, a commander in the Navy and a divorced father of two. He, in turn, was said to have had a relationship with an Air Force officer, Capt. Colleen Shipman.

      Nowak allegedly drove nonstop from Houston, where she lived and worked, to confront Shipman. Authorities charged that Nowak, carrying a steel mallet, pellet gun, a knife, plastic trash bags and pepper spray squirted in Shipman’s face, intended to kill Shipman, eliminating a rival for Oefelein’s affections.

      All this, if proven, is horrendous, but it is absolutely no unseemly reflection on the space program.

      First, the pressures of being an astronaut provably did not cause an attempted murder. If that were so, then why have we not seen other astronauts committing inexplicable or feloniously criminal acts? Out of hundreds of astronauts serving in the space program over many decades (in a few years it will mark its half-century point), she is the first to be charged with a felony.

      The cause for amazement should not be that finally an astronaut allegedly has committed some heinous deed. Rather, the puzzlement is how, in a group so large, no astronaut has gotten into such trouble until now.

      As to pressures of being an astronaut, it is true that Nowak went into space at a critical time.

      On July 4, Space Shuttle Discovery launched on mission STS-121 from Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station with Nowak and six other astronauts on board. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, July 10, 2006, page 1.)

      This was only the second shuttle flight since Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003 disintegrated during reentry. That ship and crew of seven were lost.

      And in the Discovery launch last summer, it is true that two senior NASA officials, including Bryan O’Connor, the NASA chief safety and mission assurance officer, opposed the launch as too risky, taking a no-go position.

      But others argued that safety procedures instituted in response to the Columbia tragedy would guarantee that no Columbia-style disaster could possibly befall another shuttle and crew, because any damage to an orbiter vehicle during launch or in orbit would be seen, so that no reentry would be attempted without repairs in place.

      NASA Administrator Michael Griffin listened carefully to both sides, and then made a decision — the sort of work he’s paid to do. He authorized the launch of Discovery, and he was proven right beyond a shadow of a doubt.

      Discovery came back to wheels down with no major damage or problems, which had to be enormously exhilarating for the crew, including Nowak.

      Further, two subsequent shuttle missions went up and came back with no major damage (there was one tiny pinhole puncture in an orbiter caused by a micrometeorite), missions that included a night launch.

      Beyond merely showing that shuttles could fly safely again, the resumption of flights meant that construction of the International Space Station may be completed before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, a critical goal attained.

      If Nowak experienced pre-launch stress for fear there might be risks in the Discovery mission, two points must be made:

      *She didn’t face any greater stress than her other crew members, who certainly haven’t exhibited bizarre behavior.

      *There is no such thing as safe, risk-free space travel, and she knew that fact well.

      Every astronaut knows there is a risk of death on any mission. A shuttle orbiter vehicle is an incredibly complex piece of equipment, and so is the space station. And they operate in the hostile, potentially lethal vacuum of space, where a meteorite or piece of space junk weighing just 100 pounds in gravity can wreak disaster in an instant. (China recently demolished a satellite to create thousands of pieces of debris in space, a hazard to spacecraft and the lives of astronauts and cosmonauts.)

      For astronauts, the risk of journeying into space is readily, willingly accepted as part of mankind moving into a new realm, a new frontier. As an astronaut, Commander Bill McArthur, said in an interview with Space & Missile Defense Report, the benefits of penetrating, traveling and living in space are well worth the chance of harm. One can just as well die a senseless death in an accident on an interstate highway, he noted. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, June 12, 2006, page 1.)

      As Wayne Hale, space shuttle program manager, put it just before the Discovery launch, space travel is and will be “an inherently risky business,” a danger well understood and accepted by all who venture into the void.

      One therefore hopes that the Nowak tragedy will be seen for what it is, the sadness of a mental illness striking just one individual, a talented and educated woman, and not as a cause for assailing NASA, questioning why the space agency didn’t control this (mental illness often is uncontrollable and undetectable). Hopefully, this sorry incident won’t be seized upon as a pretext for removing support for NASA programs or the grand goal of Earthlings exploring the great unknown.

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