your connection to The Boston Globe

Astronaut accused of murderous mission

Police say she plotted to kill romantic rival

ORLANDO, Fla. -- She prepared for the 950-mile drive from Houston with the discipline of someone who had flown 13 days in space. The steel mallet, folding knife, and rubber tube were all catalogued on a handwritten list, police say. She had maps, she had bus schedules, and she had a disguise. Thinking like an astronaut, she brought diapers to avoid bathroom stops.

Navy Captain Lisa Nowak set off for Orlando International Airport seven months after the July 4 launch of the shuttle Discovery -- her first trip to space, and probably her last.

The NASA astronaut from Rockville, Md., was charged yesterday with the attempted murder in Orlando of an apparent rival for the affections of another astronaut. Nowak, one of 46 women to fly in the space shuttle, is now the first active astronaut to be arrested on a felony charge. She left an Orlando jail yesterday afternoon with her jacket pulled over her head.

Police said Nowak, 43, stalked the younger woman, 30-year-old Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, at an airport parking lot early Monday, dressed in a dark wig, glasses, and a tan hooded trench coat. Unable to gain her victim's confidence, police said, she sprayed her with pepper spray through a crack in Shipman's car window before the car sped away.

According to a charging document, she intended to confront Shipman about her relationship with Navy Commander William Oefelein, an astronaut who, like Nowak, is based at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Nowak, who is married with a teenage son and twin daughters, told police she and Oefelein had "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship," according to the document. Nowak carried with her e-mails from Shipman to Oefelein.

Neither Shipman nor Oefelein could be reached by phone yesterday. Oefelein, born in Fort Belvoir, Va., is 41 and has two children. He piloted Discovery to the International Space Station in December.

Police say Nowak may have been planning the confrontation as early as Jan. 23, the day she printed out the maps she used to navigate from Texas to Florida, according to a police affidavit. She had obtained a copy of Shipman's flight plans to Orlando.

The affidavit provides this account:

Nowak checked into a La Quinta Inn in Orlando under a false name, stashed her car, and set off to meet Shipman's midnight flight from Houston to Orlando. The younger officer was returning to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.

Shipman picked up her luggage, which was late, about 3 a.m. As she waited for the bus to the airport satellite parking lot, Nowak lingered at a nearby taxi stop, wearing the wig and a trench coat. When Shipman boarded the bus, Nowak boarded, too. She got off where Shipman did. Nowak was armed with a steel mallet, a buck knife, and a BB gun that resembled a real 9mm semiautomatic handgun. The BB gun was loaded with pellets and was set to fire, according to the affidavit.

Walking to her car, Shipman sensed a threat. She heard "running footsteps" behind her. She jumped into her car, locking the door.

But before she could pull away, Nowak slapped at the window. Then she pulled at the locked door.

"Can you help me, please?" Nowak told her, according to the affidavit. "My boyfriend was supposed to pick me up, and he is not here. I've been traveling and it's late. Can you give me a ride to the parking office?"

Shipman said she'd send someone to help. Nowak asked to use Shipman's cellphone. Shipman told her the battery was dead. Nowak said she could not hear Shipman through the window. Then Nowak began to cry.

Shipman opened her window 2 inches. Nowak sprayed something, later determined to be pepper spray, into the opened window, aiming at Shipman's face. Shipman drove away, her eyes burning, and sought help, according to police.

Police and prosecutors say the evidence suggests that Nowak might have wanted to get into Shipman's car and then kill her, possibly at Shipman's house.

Citing other details -- the handwritten list, an assumed name -- prosecutor Amanda Cowan likened Nowak's planning for the Orlando voyage to the kind of preparations astronauts make as they ready for space.

"She had a mission that she was very determined to carry out," she said.

Last summer, Nowak was quite literally on top of the world, one of the very few chosen to fly on the space shuttle to the International Space Station. She flew on Discovery in July as a mission specialist and operated one of the space station's robotic arms, a job that requires intensive training.

Nowak performed "extremely well" on that first mission, said David Mould, a NASA spokesman. For the next shuttle flight in March, she was scheduled to serve as the conduit between Houston's Mission Control and the orbiting astronauts.

As of yesterday, Nowak was off NASA's prestigious "flight status" list and was on a 30-day leave.

"We're as surprised, as stunned as you can imagine," Mould said. "And we're concerned about the well-being of a very good astronaut."

Neither Nowak nor her lawyer, Donald Lykkebak of Orlando, has offered any alternate version of events. But in hearings yesterday, Lykkebak said his client was simply trying to talk to Shipman.

Nowak's family in Rockville, Md., said in a statement of support yesterday that she and her husband recently separated .

Nowak's boss, chief astronaut Steven Lindsey from Johnson Space Center, appeared at both court hearings.

"We're here representing NASA, and our main concern is Lisa's health and well-being ," he said at the morning hearing.

But by the end of the afternoon hearing, the judge had raised Nowak's bond to $25,500, in addition to the condition that she be monitored via Global Positioning System anklet, for which she will pay $15 a day. By evening, she had posted bond and was preparing to be fitted with the anklet. She was expected to return to Houston.