Nowak case prompts NASA to conduct internal review
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: February 7, 2007
NASA is kicking off internal and external reviews to assess the medical and psychological screening used in the astronaut selection process. The reviews come in the wake of shuttle veteran Lisa Nowak's diapered cross-country drive and pepper-spray confrontation with a perceived romantic rival that led to attempted murder charges for the astronaut.
Released on bail, Nowak, a Navy captain, returned to Houston and the Johnson Space Center early Wednesday, taking a commercial flight with chief astronaut Steve Lindsey. Astronaut Bob Cabana, deputy director of the Texas space center, said Nowak's parents flew in to support their daughter and that her husband - the couple recently separated - was taking care of their three children.
"Lisa's mother and father have flown to Houston, they will be with her and supporting her," Cabana said during an afternoon news conference. "As an active-duty Naval officer assigned to the Johnson Space Center, we have an agreement with the military that we provide heath care for those military personnel detailed here. Whether she's on leave or not, that health care is available."
Nowak's strange story has sparked a media maelstrom, in part because of the unusual elements of the case and her stature as an astronaut. It is alleged that Nowak drove from Houston to Orlando, using diapers to expedite the trip. Wearing a disguise, she then allegedly confronted Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman in a satellite parking lot at the Orlando International Airport.
Nowak later told police she wanted to discuss Shipman's relationship with astronaut Bill Oefelein, a veteran shuttle pilot. Nowak allegedly sprayed pepper spray into Shipman's car before the Air Force captain could drive away and call police. Nowak was arrested and ultimately charged with attempted murder, attempted kidnapping and other offenses.
The unusual nature of the case has prompted widespread questions about Nowak's stability and the psychological screening faced by astronauts. Shana Dale, NASA's deputy administrator, said Cabana had told her "that they saw no indications of concern with Lisa. But that is part of the review that we want to embark upon, to go back - obviously hindsight is 20-20 - and see if there is anything we missed along the way. So that is part of the review process."
Mike Coats, a former shuttle commander who now serves as director of the Johnson Space Center, met with the astronaut corps today "to talk about upcoming shuttle missions, upcoming work on the international space station, the need to stay focused on the work at hand," Dale said.
"As far as how the astronaut corps took this," Cabana said, "I think folks were shocked and concerned. We are a close-knit group and we try to support one another. I think Mike's meeting is just to get the corps together, talk with them and discuss the need to focus on the job at hand and not be distracted by what's going on. We have humans in space right now and we've got some challenging missions ahead of us and that's what's important. We need to stay focused on it and make sure we do it right."
Nowak, who flew as a mission specialist aboard shuttle mission STS-121 last July, was not yet assigned to another flight. But she was gearing up to serve as one of the astronauts who relay commands and information between mission control and the crew of the next shuttle mission, scheduled for launch March 15. She is now on an extended leave and another astronaut will take her place as a CAPCOM for STS-117.
"We are very concerned about the tragic situation involving Lisa Nowak and we're deeply concerned about the safety and well being of Lisa as well as Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman and astronaut Bill Oefelein," Dale told reporters today. "This is, of course, a personal and legal matter and NASA is therefore limited in its involvement and ability to discuss many of the details. However, we know there are a number of questions about NASA policies and procedures and we would like to address those today.
"First, we can tell you that Lisa Nowak, who had been scheduled for duties related to the upcoming shuttle mission, has been removed from flight status. She also is on 30-day leave. She has been released from police custody in Orlando and is now back in Houston where she lives. Her activities with NASA in Houston today are confidential personnel matters that we cannot discuss.
"As you know, Lisa was a member of the crew of (shuttle flight) STS-121, which flew this past July," Dale said. "Her performance as a member of that crew was excellent. She took part in a number of post-flight activities with other members of the crew following their return. These included appearances at sporting events, conventions and visits to other NASA centers and contractor sites.
"There also had been questions about the status of Bill Oefelein, who last flew on STS-116 in December as the pilot on that mission. He remains on flight status in the NASA astronaut office.
"Senior management at the Johnson Space Center where the astronauts are based received word early Monday that astronaut Lisa Nowak had been arrested in Orlando and was in custody. NASA management had few further details at that time and dispatched the chief of the astronaut office, Steve Lindsey, to Orlando to look into the situation and offer any appropriate assistance. Lindsey made the trip on a government aircraft, a NASA T-38 training jet, at the discretion of NASA management to expedite his arrival and NASA's ability to assess the situation. Steve Lindsey attended the court hearings associated with the case in Orlando."
Dale said the use of a government jet was justified given the initial confusion about what had happened in Orlando. But once the situation became clear, and given Nowak was not in Florida on official business, Nowak bought a commercial airline ticket to fly back to Houston, accompanied by Lindsey.
"We do not know where the facts and circumstances of this case will lead," Dale said. "We will continue to monitor and assess the situation and NASA will do whatever is appropriate in this case and fully cooperate with the authorities within legal boundaries."
In the wake of Nowak's cross-country trip, questions have been raised about NASA's psychological screening and the level of on-going care that is provided to astronauts. "All astronauts are subjected to extensive medical and psychological testing in order to be admitted to the astronaut corps," Dale said. "In addition to regular health checkups throughout their time of service to NASA, astronauts receive extensive medical examinations prior to each flight.
"While there is no specific, separate psychological examination for a shuttle flight, NASA healthcare providers are experienced in all aspects of health care, including behavioral health, and they certainly look for any potential issues or problems. More extensive psychological examinations are required for long-duration flights, such as an extended mission on the space station."
Dale said NASA has a "good track record" over the past four-and-a-half decades and "our astronauts are stellar performers. This is a unique, unusual situation that we face. We think we're doing things very, very well in the agency, astronauts are incredible performers, we just want to see if there are any areas that need improvement along the way."
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has kicked off two broad reviews of NASA policies and practices. He told Coats Tuesday to "initiate a review of existing psychological screening for admittance to the astronaut corps and a review of the nature and extent to which we do on going psychological assessments during an astronaut's career at NASA," Dale said.
"Issues to be addressed include who conducts that screening, what are the professional criteria necessary to conduct the screening, how often and in what manner are astronauts psychologically evaluated throughout their careers and if concerns are raised during any evaluation, how are those concerned adjudicated?"
Coats also was told to "determine whether there were any areas of concern, any leading indicators we might have picked up on based on Lisa Nowak's dealings with other astronauts or NASA employees," Dale said.
In addition, Griffin has asked NASA's chief medical officer to lead a combined review involving outside experts "to determine whether any modifications would be advisable to ensure that our astronauts have the level of psychological and medical care and attention they need." That review is scheduled for completion by June.
Along with generating widespread media coverage, the Nowak story also has generated a steady stream of jokes on late night television.
"In terms of NASA being the butt of jokes or LIsa taking the brunt of that, I think that's very unfortunate," Dale said. "This is a tragic event impacting many lives along the way. And I think we need to deal with that with empathy and a certain level of compassion."
Dale reiterated that for now, NASA views the Nowak affair as an isolated event. "This is a very unique situation that we're facing," she said. "We were all shocked by what we heard coming out of Florida. So at this point, we consider that to be a very unique situation and we need to let the legal proceedings continue on in Florida."
Cabana said Nowak was working at NASA as late as last week before going on leave. Asked to describe the astronaut, he said "Lisa was a vibrant, hard-working... IS a vibrant, hard-working, energetic person who did her job extremely well. She was a team player and dedicated to what she did. I found her to be extremely personable and a hard worker."