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Review: Star Crossed

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Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak
by Kimberly C. Moore
University Press of Florida, 2020
hardcover, 296 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8130-6654-7

We’ve come a long way from the earliest days of the US space program, where the Mercury 7 astronauts were placed on a pedestal as clean-cut, All-American men. They, and the astronauts who followed, were far from perfect, as we have since learned: some carousing and unfaithful to their spouses, others suffering from alcoholism and depression. Marriages were shattered and careers derailed because these best-of-the-best had human weakness and frailties, like the rest of us.

Perhaps the best known, and most bizarre, such event involving a NASA astronaut took place in the middle of the night in an airport parking lot in Orlando, Florida, in February 2007. NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, in disguise and carrying pepper spray and other weapons, accosted Colleen Shipman, a meeting driven by Shipman’s relationship with another NASA astronaut, William Oefelein, who had once dated Nowak. Shipman escaped with nothing more than the sting from a burst of pepper spray, while Nowak was soon arrested to what became international headlines.

The incident made for tabloid fodder, but exactly what Nowak intended to do, and why, remained unclear: was she simply trying to scare Shipman from seeing Oefelein, or did she have darker intentions? Star Crossed by Kimberly Moore, who covered the case as a reporter for Florida Today, offers perhaps the most thorough examination of the incident, but one that is still incomplete.

“I think she did get away with attempted murder,” said a former NASA psychiatrist and flight surgeon.

The book alternates chapters between those that tell Nowak’s life story from childhood through her astronaut career and those that recount an Orlando police detective’s interview with Nowak hours after her arrest, based on a recording of that interrogation. In one set of chapters, Nowak follows a familiar career path: star student, Naval Academy grad, pilot, NASA astronaut. In the other set of chapters, she is at times barely coherent as the detective, Chris Becton, tries to get her to explain what happened. Those two threads converge with her arrest and subsequent trial, where she eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges in a plea agreement.

The book is thorough, but ultimately can’t explain why Nowak did it. Moore relies primarily on existing NASA and court documents, as well as secondary sources. Neither Nowak nor Oefelein—who was also fired from NASA after the incident—have given any interviews about it, and Moore noted that none of the astronauts who flew on Nowak’s sole shuttle mission in 2006 would agree to an interview. The book compensates with a lot of material about Nowak’s life and career from other sources, but at times that is a drag on the narrative: one chapter provided a day-by-day review of that STS-121 shuttle mission that featured Nowak, but provided few insights about Nowak herself. Later in the book Moore abruptly shifts to the first person in one chapter, recounting Nowak’s arraignment in an Orlando court and the media frenzy surrounding it, but returns to a third-person account for most of the rest of the book.

Ultimately, a picture does emerge of Nowak under severe stress at the time: she was separated from her husband, but Oefelein was breaking off his relationship with her in favor of Shipman. Moreover, Nowak had been told she wouldn’t be assigned to another shuttle mission after complaints from the STS-121 crew that she was not a team player. The book adds that personality disorders—obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger’s—also contributed. “She was the same woman” who flew to space less than a year earlier, said one psychologist interviewed for the book, but “with a mental illness.” (Nowak’s defense attorney filed, but later withdrew, an insanity defense.)

Exactly what Nowak intended to do when she met Shipman remains uncertain, but some interviewed for the book feared the worst. “I think she did get away with attempted murder,” said a former NASA psychiatrist and flight surgeon. A former judge who reviewed the case for Moore credited Nowak’s defense attorney for successfully suppressing some evidence against her, leading to a plea deal that avoided jail time and also preserved her Navy pension: “I think she may have gotten the deal of the century.”

We may never know exactly what Nowak intended to do that night in their airport parking lot, although Star Crossed gives us perhaps the fullest picture possible unless she one day decides to speak.

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