Friday, February 9, 2007

State Attorney's Office gets astronaut case file

State Attorney's Office gets astronaut case file

By Tamara Lytle and Mark K. Matthews

The Orlando Sentinel


WASHINGTON - If astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak's life was falling apart, she gave no hint to her colleagues at Johnson Space Center in the days before her arrest in Orlando on a charge of attempted murder.

She finished her workweek as usual Friday before starting her scheduled vacation, according to NASA managers.

That weekend, Nowak drove nonstop to Orlando, where she assaulted Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman with pepper spray in an airport parking lot, police say.

NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said Wednesday that there was "no indication of concern with Lisa" in the hours before her cross-country odyssey.

That's one reason why NASA is going to reassess its psychological-testing procedures for astronauts, Dale and other managers said in a news conference from agency headquarters in Washington and Johnson Space Center in Houston.

At the direction of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, they are going back to see whether they missed any red flags with Nowak, 43. They're also going to take a more intense look at NASA's psychological-screening process to see whether it's thorough and frequent enough.

Although managers would not address any of Nowak's criminal troubles, they emphasized there was enough alarm over her meltdown to warrant both an internal review and one that will include outside experts.

Police say she methodically planned the 950-mile trip - complete with disguise, weapons and $600 in cash.

Orlando police forwarded the case file involving Nowak to the State Attorney's Office this afternoon. The file - 07-047314 - is in the intake division where prosecutors will review the evidence to determine the formal charges. The process usually takes about two weeks. State attorney officials would not comment about the case.

NASA officials began questioning astronauts and other employees after Nowak's arrest, Dale said, but no one had recalled anything abnormal about her behavior.

"We were all taken by surprise," she said.

Nowak has been placed on 30-day administrative leave and removed from flight duties. That means during the next scheduled shuttle launch in March, she will not be the astronaut at Mission Control who serves the key role of communicating with the shuttle crew in flight.

NASA also "has frozen computers and e-mails" in case police need them, said Bob Cabana, deputy director of Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Like the astronaut corps, Nowak's family was shocked by the turn of events, apparently sparked by a rivalry for the affections of Navy Cmdr. Bill Oefelein, 41, a shuttle pilot. They say the conduct outlined in the charges against Lisa Nowak, the oldest of three sisters, is totally out of character.

On Wednesday, one of Nowak's sisters, attorney Andrea Rose, e-mailed photos to reporters to show the family during better days. Meanwhile, their parents, Alfredo and Jane Caputo, were flying to Houston to be with Nowak, who recently separated from her husband of 19 years.

"I hope that you find (the photos_ useful in portraying Lisa in a more well-rounded way - as the mother, sister, daughter, wife and friend who her family knows her to be," Andrea Rose said.

Meanwhile, NASA managers are trying to figure out how they missed the other Lisa Nowak.

Astronauts undergo extensive medical and psychological tests to gain admittance to the astronaut corps, Dale said.

Dr. Jeff Davis, director of space-life sciences at Johnson Space Center, said astronaut candidates are questioned during two separate, two-hour interviews. The first is a highly structured evaluation by a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

A psychiatrist carries out the second interview alone, providing an opportunity to explore any issues that may have arisen during the first discussion.

The findings of both interviews are reviewed by the overall board that determines an applicant's medical and psychological suitability for spaceflight. In addition, a panel of psychologists rates each applicant separately for suitability for long- or short-term space missions, Davis said.

No separate psychological tests are done after that for routine missions, but flight surgeons are trained to evaluate the medical and mental health of astronauts during annual checkups, Dale said.

Davis said the doctors are trained to look for "behavioral issues" and can refer the astronaut to a mental-health specialist if needed.

"There is not a structured (psychological) test given on an annual evaluation, but there is this very thorough annual medical evaluation by a trained aerospace-medicine physician who can make referrals to any discipline," Davis said.

Like many other workplaces, NASA also offers an employee-assistance program that provides help with personal problems.

Cabana said the agency's astronauts are comfortable asking for help if they need it.

NASA has begun two reviews of its screening process. Michael Coats, director of Johnson Space Center, home to the astronauts, will look into how and when psychological tests are done and whether anyone should have seen anything amiss with Nowak.

NASA Chief Medical Officer Rich Williams will take a broader sweep, bringing in national experts on stress and other topics to look at the agency's handling of astronauts and their health.

Coats met with astronauts to remind them to stay focused on today's scheduled spacewalk and the March space-shuttle launch.

"Folks were shocked and concerned," Cabana said. "We are a close-knit group, and we try to support one another."

Although they look out for one another, he said, "like any group, sometimes things get missed."

Dale said astronauts' conduct on and off the job is treated the same as other federal workers. Asked whether there were rules against fraternization, she said, "We don't meddle in the private lives of astronauts or other employees of NASA."

Oefelein remained on flight status, Dale said. He took personal leave to fly at his own expense to Orlando and then back this week.

Dale asked the public not to ridicule those involved.

"This is a tragic event impacting many lives along the way. We need to deal with that with empathy and a certain level of compassion," she said. "This is a very unique situation."

If anyone is sympathetic to Dale's plea, it's Frankie Camera, owner of the landmark Frenchie's restaurant just minutes from JSC in Houston.

The decades-old Italian diner features autographed pictures of astronauts and memorials to the fallen crews of Columbia and Challenger.

On Wednesday, Camera talked about NASA as family.

"This community, we all know each other. It's just so sad," he said. "Astronauts are looked to as heroes. Everyone wants to be an astronaut one day."

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