Astronaut’s Arrest Spotlights Differences in NASA, Navy Policies
Astronaut Lisa M. Nowak, mission specialist. Image
Credit: NASA

The bizarre arrest of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak Monday cast in sharp relief the guidelines governing civilian and military spaceflyers.

Police arrested Nowak, a U.S. Navy captain and mother of three, in Orlando, Florida early Monday, where she is charged with the attempted kidnapping of a romantic rival for the affections of NASA space shuttle pilot William Oefelein. Nowak also faces a charge of attempted first-degree murder based on items recovered by police at the time of her arrest, Orlando police said Tuesday.

Both Nowak and Oefelein, a Navy Commander, are active U.S. Navy personnel attached to NASA, a civilian space agency overseen by the U.S. government. Each of those government organizations has its own guidelines for appropriate and lawful work-related behavior.

“We don’t believe that anyone has ever been charged with a felony as an active duty astronaut,” Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesperson at the agency’s Washington D.C. headquarters, told SPACE.com. “I think this is the first time that’s happened.”

NASA’s behavioral guidelines align with standard government rules. Active U.S. military personnel, meanwhile, are subject to the Uniform Military Code of Justice, which governs fraternization, conduct unbecoming an officer, and other regulations.

“They are both Naval officers and we have to defer to the Navy on what their code of conduct is,” Beutel said. “That’s slightly different than say a typical civil servant.”

NASA has specific codes of astronaut conduct for spaceflyers living and working aboard the International Space Station (ISS), but on Earth the agency’s reach is purposely limited to their professional activities.

“There are rules as far as being government employees, but NASA doesn’t monitor or restrict the private lives of employees,” NASA spokesperson Kylie Clem, of the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, told SPACE.com, adding that the guidelines are currently expected to remain unchanged.

Private fraternization among astronauts is not prohibited, NASA officials said.

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

“They are both Naval officers and we have to defer to the Navy on what their code of conduct is,” Beutel said. “That’s slightly different than say a typical civil servant.”

Some Navy officials believe any additional charges for Nowak beyond the current civil allegations would likely await the outcome of the civil proceedings, one U.S. Navy official said.

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

Nowak served as a robotic arm operator during NASA’s STS-121 shuttle mission in July 2006, a spaceflight that marked the space agency’s return to orbiter flight. Oefelein piloted the space shuttle Discovery’s STS-116 shuttle mission in December 2006.

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

Though not aware of all the details surrounding the Nowak incident, Abbey said that rules and procedures need to be in place so that NASA management can intercede before things get out of hand.

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

Clem said Steven Lindsey, NASA’s chief astronaut in the Astronaut Office, and shuttle pilot Chris Ferguson are currently with Nowak in Florida. Ferguson is a senior military astronaut within NASA’s Astronaut Corps, she added.

“We’re stunned,” Clem said.

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