Astronaut charged with attempted murder in bizarre love triangle

A NASA astronaut accused of trying to kidnap a romantic rival for a space shuttle pilot's affections was charged Tuesday with attempted first-degree murder.

Last July, NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak travelled 8.5 million kilometres in the space shuttle Discovery in a single-minded mission to put America's beleaguered space shuttle program back on track.

Astronaut Lisa Nowak visited the International Space Station in July 2006. On the right is a police mugshot taken after she was arrested on Monday. ((NASA, Orange County Sheriff's Department/Associated Press))
In February, she drove 1,500 kilometreson a different, but equally single-minded mission. According to police, Nowak's love for another astronaut led her todrive from Houston to Orlando, Fla.,bringing with her a trenchcoat, wig, BB gun and pepper spray. She even wore a diaper to avoid bathroom breaks on the arduous trip.

Once in Florida, Nowak allegedly confronted the woman she believed was her rival for the affections of shuttle pilot William Oefelein.

Nowak, a 43-year-old navy captain and recently separated mother of three, was charged Tuesday with attempted first-degree murder. She isaccused of hatching an extraordinary plot to kidnap Colleen Shipman, who she believed was romantically involved with Oefelein.

Police said Nowak confronted Shipman, who was in her car at the Orlando airport, and sprayed something at her, possibly pepper spray.

At first the astronaut was charged with attempted kidnapping and other counts, and a judge had permitted her release on bail.

Then, in a surprise move, prosecutors upped the charge to attempted murder, basing it on the items they say Nowak had on her and in her car —the pepper spray, an unused BB-gun cartridge, a new steel mallet, a knife, rubber tubing and large garbage bags.

Murder charge 'can't be supported': defence lawyer

Nowak's lawyer, Donald Lykkebak, disputed that upgraded charge on Tuesday.

"In the imaginations of the police officers, they extend these facts out into areas where the facts can't be supported," he said.

His client wasreleasedlate Tuesdayon $25,500 US bail. If convicted, she could face 30 years in prison

NASA has put Nowak on a 30-day leave and removed her from mission activities.

Nature of relationships unclear

The full extent of the nature of Nowak's relationships were unclear Tuesday.

Astronauts William Oefelein, right, and Lisa Nowak take special training at CFB Valcartier on Jan. 21, 2004. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))
Nowak, who visited the International Space Station on the mission last July,and Oefelein both live in the Houston area. They had trained together as astronauts, but never flew into space together.

Shipman, 30, works at the Patrick Air Force Base near the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral,Fla.

Earlier, Nowak was quoted by police as saying she and Oefelein had something "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship."

Neither Oefelein nor Shipman could be reached for comment Tuesday, nor could Nowak's estranged husband.

Police found a letter in Nowak's car that "indicated how much Mrs. Nowak loved Mr. Oefelein," the arrest affidavit said. Police also found copies of e-mails between Shipman and Oefelein in the car.

Police said Nowak believed Shipman was romantically involved with Oefelein.

Wore diapers to avoid bathroom breaks

Accustomed to wearing astronaut diapers during the space shuttle's launch and return to Earth, Nowak wore them on her journey to Florida so she would not have to make bathroom stops, police said.

She headed for the Orlando airport to confront Shipman as she arrived on a flight from Houston. There, police said, Nowak donned a wig and trench coat, boarded an airport shuttle bus with Shipman and followed her to her car. Then, crying, Nowak sprayed a chemical into the car.

Shipman drove to a parking lot booth and sought help.

Police found Nowak's car parked at a nearby motel.

A police affidavit, made public Tuesday, said the circumstances of the case "create a well-founded fear" and gave investigators "probable cause to believe that Mrs. Nowak intended to murder Ms. Shipman."

Lykkebak said his client only wanted to talk to Shipman, not kill her. Asked about the weapons, the lawyer said, "You can sit and speculate all day."

NASA spokesman John Ira said he was concerned about the people involved and their families. But he added: "We try not to concern ourselves with our employees' personal lives."

Nowak, who went to high school in Maryland and before attending the U.S. Naval Academy, has won various Navy service awards. According to NASA's official biography, she has a master's degree in aeronautical engineering. She has a teenage son and younger twin girls.

She and her husband separated several weeks ago after 19 years of marriage, according to a statement issued by her family.

"Personally, Lisa is an extremely caring and dedicated mother to her three children," the statement said.

Oefelein has two children andbegan his aviation career as a teenager flying float planes in Alaska, according to a NASA biography. He studied electrical engineering at Oregon State University and later earned a master's degree in aviation systems at the University of Tennessee Space Institute. He has been an astronaut since 1998.