NASA fires astronaut charged in case

Published 4:22 pm Thursday, March 8, 2007

Lisa Nowak was in the astronaut corps for a decade before she took her first and only space shuttle flight last summer during Discovery’s 13-day trip to the international space station.

It took only a half year from her return to Earth for her to lose her job as an astronaut.

NASA dismissed Nowak on Wednesday, a month after she was charged with trying to kidnap a woman she regarded as her romantic rival for the affections of a space shuttle pilot.

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Nowak’s dismissal did not reflect the space agency’s belief in her guilt or innocence, NASA officials said. The agency said it lacked an administrative system to handle the allegations because Nowak is a naval officer on assignment to NASA, rather than a NASA civil servant.

If Nowak were a civil servant, NASA would have the choice of placing her on administrative leave, leave without pay or indefinite suspension until the charges are resolved, said NASA spokesman James Hartsfield in Houston. But because she is an officer, those options are not available.

Nowak, a Navy captain, instead will return to the military.

She will be assigned to the staff at the Chief of Naval Air Training in Corpus Christi, Texas, starting in two weeks, Navy Cmdr. Lydia Robertson said. Robertson said she didn’t know what specific job Nowak would be doing.

The space shuttle pilot who was the object of Nowak’s affections, Navy Cmdr. Bill Oefelein, remains on active duty while working for NASA. Robertson said she could not speculate whether his status is under review.

Chief astronaut Steve Lindsey notified Nowak late last month that she was to be terminated from the astronaut corps. After her arrest, NASA placed Nowak on a 30-day leave, which was to end Thursday.

It was the first time NASA has publicly fired an astronaut, according to space historian Roger Launius of the Smithsonian Institution. She is also the first active astronaut to be charged with a felony, he said.

Nowak didn’t respond to a call to her Houston home seeking comment, and a spokeswoman for her attorney said she didn’t have any immediate comment.

Nowak, a mother of three, is accused of confronting Colleen Shipman, the woman who had become Oefelein’s girlfriend, at the Orlando airport after driving from Houston. She wore an astronaut diaper so that she would not have to stop during her 900-mile trip, authorities said.

She allegedly pepper-sprayed Shipman through a partially lowered car window. Police said they found a BB gun, new steel mallet, a knife and rubber tubing in Nowak’s possession.

Nowak, 43, pleaded not guilty to attempted kidnapping, burglary with assault and battery. She was released on bail wearing a monitoring device on her ankle.

She received a commission from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1985 and joined the astronaut corps in 1996.