Photo: © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation
When NASA astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, 43, recently separated mother of twin 5-year-old girls and a teenage son, scorned lover of navy commander William Oefelein, 41, put on the MAG (maximum absorbency garment) to avoid pit stops during her nearly 1,000-mile drive to confront Billy O's new girlfriend, Colleen Shipman, she headed for a destination she'd never intended. Carrying a BB gun, a four-inch Buck knife, pepper spray, a steel mallet, trash bags, several feet of rubber tubing, a trenchcoat, a wig, and a computer disc containing images of a woman in bondage poses, she made it as planned, from Houston to Orlando—but once there, she ceased to be an international icon of female achievement. Instead, Nowak followed in the footsteps of Jean Harris (headmistress of an elite private boarding school who shot her cheating lover, the Scarsdale diet doctor, Herman Tarnower) and Clara Harris (the Houston dentist who ran over her adulterous husband several times) as the latest lovesick woman who had it all and snapped.
If Lisa Nowak, who has risen both figuratively and literally about as high as any woman is able to rise, can lose it, is every woman discarded by her lover in danger of skidding out of control? The diaper in particular—an almost too-perfect symbol of the helpless, infantile state to which love gone wrong can reduce us—has prompted many women to ask themselves some version of: "I may have done some slightly nutty stuff. I may have snipped him out of all the wedding photos, I may have called his boss to say he was a two-timing lowlife, even keyed the other woman's car. But I never put on the diaper. I could never be that crazy. Or could I?"
Lisa Nowak's ruin reads like a hollywood screenplay. The co-valedictorian of her high school class, she graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, received a master's degree in aeronautical engineering, completed test-pilot school, flew aboard the shuttle Discovery, and became one of a handful of women to balance raising a family with space travel. Then, about three years ago, she began an affair with fellow astronaut Oefelein, according to his police statement. At the time, she was living with her husband of 16 years, Richard, and their three young children. When Oefelein announced in January 2007 that he was in love with Colleen Shipman, Nowak "seemed a little disappointed but...accepting" of the new situation, he told detectives; she was still one of his "best friends at NASA." It's clear, though, that Nowak did not see their relationship in such a palsy-walsy light. In a letter to the commander's mother, Billye Oefelein, thanking her for being "another mom to turn to," Nowak told her that she was finally ending her marriage to Richard: "...I am in the process of completing all the official divorce paperwork," she wrote. Calling Oefelein "absolutely the best person I've ever known," Nowak confessed to his mother that she loved him "more than I knew possible."
Reality must have hit, however, when Nowak read a few e-mails between Oefelein and his new paramour, possibly after letting herself into his apartment with the key he'd given her. While Oefelein was in orbit last December, Shipman had written, "Will have to control myself when I see you. First urge will be to rip your clothes off, throw you on the ground, and love the hell out of you.'' A few weeks later, after the cancellation of a simulated flight, she wrote, "All this excitement and no launch. You'd better watch out when I see you again!!!! GRRRRRR!!!!" She wasn't the only interested party. "I need to see you. I am having Colleen withdrawals. Must see Colleen," he e-mailed at one point; at another, "You must really have me around your finger that I can't even function without you here..."