Astronaut’s Arrest Spotlights Differences in NASA, Navy Policies

Astronaut Biography: Lisa Nowak
Astronaut Lisa M. Nowak, mission specialist. Image (Image credit: NASA)

Thebizarre arrest of NASAastronaut LisaNowak Monday cast in sharp relief the guidelines governing civilian andmilitary spaceflyers.

Police arrested Nowak,a U.S. Navy captain and mother of three, in Orlando, Florida earlyMonday, where she is charged with the attempted kidnapping of a romantic rivalfor the affections of NASAspace shuttle pilot William Oefelein. Nowak also faces a charge of attemptedfirst-degree murder based on items recovered by police at the time of herarrest, Orlando police saidTuesday.

BothNowak and Oefelein, a Navy Commander, are active U.S. Navy personnel attachedto NASA, a civilian space agency overseen by the U.S.government. Each of those government organizations has its own guidelines forappropriate and lawful work-related behavior.

“Wedon’t believe that anyone has ever been charged with a felony as anactive duty astronaut,” Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesperson at theagency’s Washington D.C. headquarters,told “I think this is the first time that’shappened.”

NASA’sbehavioral guidelines align with standard government rules. Active U.S.military personnel, meanwhile, are subject to the Uniform Military Code ofJustice, which governs fraternization, conduct unbecoming an officer, and otherregulations.

“Theyare both Naval officers and we have to defer to the Navy on what their code ofconduct is,” Beutel said. “That’s slightly different than saya typical civil servant.”

NASAhas specific codes of astronautconduct for spaceflyers living and working aboard the International SpaceStation (ISS), but on Earth the agency’s reach is purposely limited totheir professional activities.

“Thereare rules as far as being government employees, but NASA doesn’t monitoror restrict the private lives of employees,” NASA spokesperson KylieClem, of the agency’s JohnsonSpaceCenterin Houston, told,adding that the guidelines are currently expected to remain unchanged.

Privatefraternization among astronauts is not prohibited, NASA officials said.

“Astronautsdated each other, astronaut married each other, there has been a married couplethat flew on the same shuttle mission,” said astronaut biographer MichaelCassutt, referring to the 1992 flight of then-married astronauts Mark Lee andJan Davis aboard Endeavour during NASA’s STS-47 mission. “Theguidelines are unspoken, or if they're spoken they’re general.They’re grown ups, and you’re expected to behave like grown ups.”

“Theyare both Naval officers and we have to defer to the Navy on what their code ofconduct is,” Beutel said. “That’s slightly different than saya typical civil servant.”

SomeNavy officials believe any additional charges for Nowak beyond the currentcivil allegations would likely await the outcome of the civil proceedings, oneU.S. Navy official said.

Accordingto police and wire reports, the 43-year-old Nowak believed another womanColleen Shipman was romantically involved with Oefelein, who is unmarried and afather of two. Nowak then drove 900 miles (1,448 kilometers) from her Houston home to Orlandoto confront Shipman early Monday, according to her arrest affidavit.

Nowakservedas a robotic arm operator during NASA’sSTS-121 shuttle mission in July 2006, a spaceflight that marked the spaceagency’s return to orbiter flight. Oefelein pilotedthe space shuttle Discovery’s STS-116shuttle mission in December 2006.

Accordingto GeorgeAbbey, the former Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home tothe Astronaut Corps, instances of fraternization did occur but no more or lessthan in any other large private sector organization. Abbey was JSC directorfrom 1996 to 2001, and had worked with NASA since 1967. A controversial figurein some quarters, Abbey was known for his devotion to the astronaut corps.

Thoughnot aware of all the details surrounding the Nowak incident, Abbey said thatrules and procedures need to be in place so that NASA management can intercedebefore things get out of hand.

“Yes,we had instances in the past,” said Abbey. “Anytime you have alarge number of people working for you, you have to be sensitive to these kindsof situations and not let the situation get to where this situation has got.But remember, something like this just doesn’t happen overnight. I wouldbe surprised that this happened.”

Clemsaid StevenLindsey, NASA’s chief astronaut in the Astronaut Office, and shuttlepilot ChrisFerguson are currently with Nowak in Florida.Ferguson is a seniormilitary astronaut within NASA’s Astronaut Corps, she added.

“We’restunned,” Clem said.

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  • Mission Discovery: The ISS Rewiring Job of NASA’s STS-116
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  • The Great Space Quiz: Space Shuttle Countdown
  • All About Astronauts

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.