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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 13:53 GMT
Astronaut image crashes to Earth
By Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral, Florida

Lisa Nowak, foreground, makes her initial court appearance  Image: AP
Capt Nowak made her first court appearance on Tuesday
When the shuttle Atlantis crew gets to work next month on the International Space Station, they won't be talking to the astronaut originally scheduled to serve as their primary liaison with mission control.

Lisa Nowak, 43, a US Navy captain who made her first flight on the shuttle last year, has a more pressing job on her to-do list: defend herself against a charge of attempted first-degree murder, a crime that carries a life sentence in jail.

Police say Capt Nowak drove from Houston to Orlando on Sunday, wearing a nappy so that she wouldn't have to stop for bathroom breaks, to confront a woman she allegedly believed was a rival for the affections of fellow astronaut William Oefelein, a divorced father of two.

On Tuesday, Nowak posted a $25,500 bond, allowing her to be released.

Over the years [Nasa has] managed to keep all the bad behavior out of the spotlight
Dr Pat Santy, psychiatrist
As a condition, she was fitted with a tracking monitor to ensure she would not have contact with the woman she allegedly considered her rival, Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman.

Ms Shipman works at Patrick Air Force base, located just south of Nasa's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Normal problems

Capt Nowak, who has three children, recently separated from her husband of 19 years - the space station flight director Richard Nowak - according to a family statement released on Tuesday evening.

Lisa Nowak on the space shuttle  Image: Nasa
The astronaut flew aboard the space shuttle last July
"In spite of all the cheerful Nasa publicity, the astronauts are only human beings after all," said Pat Santy, a psychiatrist affiliated with the University of Michigan who used to assist Nasa with astronaut selection.

"I'm sure it is shocking to find out that they have unhappy marriages, engage in affairs, have problems with their kids, act out in all sorts of inappropriate ways," Dr Santy wrote in her blog.

"The powers that be at Nasa have always known that astronauts are only human, but over the years they have managed to keep all the bad behaviour out of the spotlight and pretend that there is only the good. Somehow, I don't think they'll be able to pull that off this time around," she added.

Elusive 'stuff'

She explained that the notion that astronauts possess some elusive "right stuff" that makes them special simply by virtue of being selected, or by flying in space "ignores the reality of the human experience".

William Oefelein  Image: AP
Cmdr Oefelein trained with Capt Nowak
Dr Santy said Nasa promoted and treated its astronauts like celebrities.

She likened this "toxic" culture to that of Hollywood and Washington politics.

"It is not too hard to predict that they will behave just like any other entitled superstar (or politician)," she wrote on her blog.

"[Nasa's] carefully constructed public image of astronauts has come crashing to Earth."

But some astronauts have previously spoken out about their personal problems.

Celebrity status

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the Moon as part of Nasa's Apollo 11 crew has talked extensively about being a former alcoholic.

In an interview with the BBC in 2001, Mr Aldrin - who successfully battled to recover from his addiction - admitted that his celebrity status had partly contributed to the problem.

"You gain a degree of notoriety and you begin not to be able to do things without people knowing what you're doing, you're more on show," the astronaut said.

Mr Aldrin was paraded in front of the world after his return from the triumphant Moon landing. He explained: "I felt imposed on, maybe by these sets of conditions and I guess maybe that led to a sense of frustration and depression."

Pepper spray

According to police reports, Capt Nowak, disguised in a wig and hooded trench coat, approached the woman in a parking lot at the Orlando International Airport early Monday morning.

When the woman opened her window slightly to speak to Ms Nowak, the astronaut allegedly squirted her in the face with pepper spray. Ms Shipman alerted a car park attendant, who summoned police.

Police later found a knife, rubbish bags, air gun, steel mallet, rubber tubing, gloves and $600 in cash in Nowak's car and in a bag she had tossed into a rubbish bin in the car park.

"Murder was the plan," assistant state attorney Amanda Cowan said during one of Nowak's two court appearances on Tuesday.

In a statement, Nowak's family said that "these alleged events are completely out of character and have come as a tremendous shock to our family".

Nasa dispatched two astronauts to Orlando to support Capt Nowak in court.

"We're down here supporting her," said chief astronaut Steve Lindsey, who was Nowak's commander during her July 2006 spaceflight. " We're a close family, and we try to take care of our own."

Astronaut on murder plot charge
06 Feb 07 |  Americas
Astronaut in 'love kidnap plot'
06 Feb 07 |  Americas
Shuttle lifts off in night launch
10 Dec 06 |  Science/Nature
Discovery makes Florida landing
17 Jul 06 |  Science/Nature

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