NASA officials have pulled astronaut and Navy captain Lisa Nowak from her spaceflyer detail in a mutual agreement with Naval authorities, the U.S. space agency announced Wednesday.
"NASA requested an end to the detail because the agency lacks the administrative means to deal appropriately with the criminal charges facing Nowak," NASA officials said in a statement.
NASA's civil servant employees can be placed on administrative leave, leave without pay or indefinite suspension, none of which are applicable to the agency's active military personnel and astronauts like Nowak, NASA spokesperson Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters, of the agency's Johnson Space Center, told SPACE.com. The decision is not a reflection of NASA's belief in Nowak's innocence or guilt, she stressed.
"Our options were to remove her from flight status, which was done, to put her on leave, which was done, and the only other remaining option was to end the detail," David Mould, a spokesperson at the agency's Washington D.C. headquarters, added.
Nowak, a mother of three, first joined NASA's astronaut ranks in 1996 and made her only spaceflight last July during the space agency's STS-121 shuttle mission to the International Space Station [image]. The space agency placed Nowak on a 30-day leave following her initial arrest, then later removed her from flight status and replaced her Mission Control assignment as spacecraft communicator for the upcoming STS-117 shuttle flight in April.
Police officers in Orlando, Florida arrested Nowak on Feb. 5 after she allegedly drove 900 miles from Houston, Texas - home to NASA's astronaut training grounds at the Johnson Space Center - to confront Colleen Shipman, Oefelein's girlfriend, at the Orlando airport. Police say Nowak wore an adult diaper akin to those used by astronauts to avoid unnecessary stops, donned a wig to confront Shipman and sprayed her with pepper spray. Officers also stated that they found a steel mallet, knife, rubber tubing and pellet gun in Nowak's car.
Nowak has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping and burglary with assault.
According to the Associated Press, documents released by prosecutors this week included e-mails which confirmed that Oefelein [image], a Navy commander who flew aboard NASA's December shuttle flight, and Nowak had pursued a romantic relationship for two to three years, ending in late 2006 before he began to date Shipman.
Because she is a military officer, and not a civil servant, Nowak's status falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy and is not subject to any administrative actions by the space agency, NASA officials said. Nowak will now shift to her next Navy assignment, NASA officials said.
"She has orders, and she will be assigned to the staff of the chief of Naval Air Training in Corpus Christie, Texas effective March 21," Commander Lydia Robertson, a U.S. Navy spokesperson, told SPACE.com.
The U.S. Navy and other Armed Forces have a memorandum of understanding with NASA in which military personnel can apply to the space agency's astronaut corps if they have the appropriate skills and positions are available.
"It is a partnership with the Navy," Robertson said of Naval astronauts, adding that process depends on an applicant's duty detail. "When it fits their designator, the special code that they have that describes what their duties are, then they will go work for NASA."
Cloutier-Lemasters said NASA astronauts from the U.S. military have left the space agency's Astronaut Corps in the past to return to their respective military branches.
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