Former Astronaut Lisa Nowak's Navy Career Is Over
Former NASA astronaut Lisa M. Nowak participates in an exercise in the systems engineering simulator at Johnson Space Center for her STS-121 mission in 2006.
Credit: NASA

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A government panel late Thursday unanimously decided to end former astronaut and U.S. Navy Capt. Lisa Nowak's military career.

In 2007, Nowak confronted her romantic rival, Colleen Shipman, in the parking lot of Orlando International Airport after driving from Houston. Shipman had begun dating Nowak's love interest, former space shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein.

On Thursday, a board of Inquiry made up of three Navy admirals voted 3-0 that she should be separated from service; have her service characterized as "other than honorable;" and be downgraded from her current rank of captain to commander, which affects her pay grade and pension.

Nowak did not comment on the decision but remained composed, though it appeared she was tearing up. She was obviously disappointed, but sat straight, with her hands folded on table as she had for most of the day.

Nowak pleaded guilty in a criminal case in November to felony burglary and misdemeanor battery. She originally had been charged with two felonies - attempted kidnapping and burglary - along with misdemeanor battery. She could have faced up to life in prison under the attempted kidnapping charge.

Thursday, Nowak was interviewed by her own counsel and the government's. The government's questioning focused on items she had with her in a bag and in her car when she encountered Shipman.

Early on during Thursday's proceedings, the government presented as evidence a black wig and a BB gun found in trash can near where Nowak was arrested, and a roughly 8-inch knife, green rubber tubing and steel mallet all found in a bag she was carrying. It also presented pepper spray used in the attack.

Nowak's counsel objected, saying nothing other than wig and pepper spray actually were used in the attack, but all the items were admitted.

During questioning by the government counsel, Nowak clarified again that she only had the spray and the wig with her but had left the other items elsewhere. She said she had the other items because she feared Shipman might become violent.

The government also asked her about a diaper she was reportedly wearing during the drive from Houston. Nowak testified she was not wearing the diaper, but it had been in the car since an evacuation drill during Hurricane Rita, more than a year before. She said at the time she used one because she could not get into a hotel.

Nowak's counsel's questioning was more personal, asking her about why she decided to become an astronaut. She responded that she had always looked up to other female astronauts.

When the government's counsel asked if she thought she was a good ambassador for the NASA program, she said that she hoped she would be for female astronauts.

A colleague, James Hooper, testified today that he worked directly with her and she impressed him. "Without question" she's the kind of officer he wants working for him, he said. She was "quite satisfactory and most honorable."

In closing, Nowak's counsel called her actions those "of a woman who was ill at the time." But in its closing, the government countered that a plea of insanity was taken off the table and not used, showing she was aware of her actions.

The panel, which is meeting at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, will offer a recommendation based on the evidence, which will go to the Secretary of the Navy for a final decision. The panel has a legal adviser in the hearing room.

This was not a court martial, nor is the panel sentencing Nowak; it is responsible only for deciding on a recommendation.

The panel also was questioned today by Nowak's counsel during the morning, asking them if they knew the respondent or if they had prior knowledge of the case. They also were asked if they knew Nowak might have worn astronaut diapers during the attack.

During the 2007 incident, Nowak, in a trench coat and wig, followed Shipman to the parking lot and tried to get into her car, then attacked her with pepper spray. Shipman was able to drive away.

Police arrested Nowak a short time later in the parking lot near a trash can where she was seen getting rid of a bag. In Nowak's bag police found the items presented at the hearing today and several large garbage bags.

"Almost three years later, I'm still reeling from her vicious attack," Shipman told Circuit Judge Marc Lubet in court after Nowak's plea, holding back tears. "I know in my heart when Lisa Nowak attacked me, she was going to kill me."

"I believe I escaped a horrible death that night," Shipman said.

She described how she still fears for her life, suffers nightmares, migraines, high blood pressure and other medical problems and has bought a shotgun and has a concealed weapons permit. She now lives in Alaska with Oefelein.

At the time, Nowak apologized for the pain she brought to Shipman's life. "I hope very much that we can all move forward from this with privacy and peace," Nowak said.

Shipman was not at the hearing.

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