HOUSTON—After 19 years of marriage, three children and one magnificent shuttle flight into space, NASA astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak's life was beginning to unravel.
The Navy captain had separated from her husband a few weeks ago and, according to papers filed in court, began stalking a female Air Force officer who was dating the astronaut whom Nowak longed for.
On Tuesday, the high-flying trajectory of Nowak's life veered into bizarre and sordid terrain as charges were filed against her in a Florida court for assault, attempted kidnapping and attempted murder.
FOR THE RECORD:
Astronaut charged: An article in Section A on Wednesday about astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak described her and her future husband, Richard Nowak, as having been U.S. Naval Academy cadets. Those who attend the Naval Academy are called midshipmen.
Police arrested her early Monday in a parking lot at Orlando International Airport after she had driven nearly 1,000 miles from her home in Houston to intercept 30-year-old Capt. Colleen Shipman as she arrived on a flight.
Nowak saw Shipman as a rival for the affection of astronaut and Navy Cmdr. William A. Oefelein, 41.
Wearing a trench coat and wig, Nowak, 43, allegedly fired pepper spray at Shipman, who managed to escape and alert police. Investigators said Nowak was carrying a 4-inch buck knife, steel mallet, latex gloves, rubber tubing, garbage bags and a BB gun in a black duffel bag.
In court Tuesday, Nowak appeared in a blue prison jumpsuit, haggard and silent, with her eyes cast toward the floor.
It was a sharp contrast to her television appearance during the July shuttle mission to the International Space Station. She appeared then with her crew mates decked out in a bright-orange space suit, beaming the endless smile that has become part of the public persona of NASA astronauts.
Space agency officials said they believed this was the first time an active-duty astronaut had been arrested on felony charges.
After her court appearance, her family members in Maryland and Virginia sent out an e-mail to journalists, describing her as a "caring and dedicated mother" and pleading for understanding.
"Considering both her personal and professional life, these alleged events are completely out of character and have come as a tremendous shock to our family," the e-mail said. "We are anxious to allow the facts to develop so that we can better understand what happened, and why."
There also was confusion in Houston, the hometown of the manned space program.
At Frenchie's, an Italian restaurant and NASA hangout near Johnson Space Center, owner Frankie Camera lamented the troubles of a woman he had come to know and admire.
Nowak's autographed photo, taken with the rest of her shuttle crew, hangs in the restaurant, along with dozens of other astronaut portraits.
"She is a brilliant girl. A beautiful girl, normal and nice," Camera said. "When something like that happens to your head, it's sad.... I feel really bad. I hope she's all right."
All through her life, Nowak had the right stuff.
She grew up in Rockville, Md., as Lisa Caputo. Her mother was a biologist and her father a computer consultant. One of three daughters, Nowak seemed destined to succeed.