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Harrigan goes on to talk about how high the stakes were for her. "Even though astronauts have to shove the thought of annihilation to the back of their minds, they understand that they have put not just their lives but their family's lives on the line. Perhaps the combination of traits that made Lisa Nowak so exceptional also made her breakdown so exceptional."

Harrigan also points out that Nowak began her desperate journey just three days after the fourth anniversary of the Columbia disaster, when the space shuttle disintegrated upon reentry, killing all seven astronauts onboard. One of them was a close friend of Nowak's. "The destruction of Columbia was a traumatic wound for everyone involved," says Harrigan. "It had a tremendous effect." Speaking of the intensely close relationships that astronauts must develop as they put their lives in their comrades' hands, Harrigan suggests that "in this particular pressure cooker, the constant knowledge of death creates a galvanizing personal bond among the shuttle crews."

Lisa Marie Nowak is scheduled to stand trial at the end of September on charges of kidnapping with intent to harm, burglary of a vehicle with assault, and battery. There is hardly a more poignant image than her mug shot: hair a demented frizz, shoulders hunched, head ducked, neck tendons tensed for the blow that is to come, brows lowered over eyes ringed in smeared mascara and grown huge with haunted pleading, forehead wrinkled with a sorrow that is almost simian in its sheer animal nakedness. To compare that photo to the one on the NASA Web site of a serenely kempt woman, resplendent in orange space suit, wedding ring glittering, beaming in front of the flag, is to remember that all the astrophysics in the universe may never quite explain the human heart.

Yet it is that simian wrinkle in the mug shot we keep coming back to. It wobbles across Nowak's forehead directly in front of a brain that is a pudding of hormones and chemicals and inheritances from the Stone Age, but a brain that also has the miraculous ability to understand itself. Just as the diaper was an almost too perfect symbol of helpless animal need, that wrinkle could be the line drawn at the bottom of a long sum about to be totaled by Lisa Marie Nowak as she realizes all she has lost by losing it.

Sarah Bird writes for Texas Monthly, and is the author of The Flamenco Academy (Knopf).

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