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Astro-naughty chase for Sunita’s pilot

Orlando (Florida), Feb. 6: Thank God Sunita Williams is not standing too close to William Oefelein in the picture.

Or she may have had to reckon with Lisa Nowak who raced 900 miles wearing a disguise and diapers to confront a woman she believed was her rival for the affections of the space shuttle pilot.

Astronaut and navy captain Nowak, 43, was arrested yesterday and charged with attempted murder shortly before she was to be released on bail. She was earlier charged with attempted kidnapping, attempted vehicle burglary, destruction of evidence and battery.

Police said Nowak drove from her home in Houston to the Orlando International Airport to confront Colleen Shipman, who she thought was romantically involved with navy commander Oefelein.

Oefelein piloted space shuttle Discovery on its trip to the International Space Station last December. Williams, an astronaut of Indian origin who set a space-walking record yesterday, was on the flight.

Nowak told police that her relationship with Oefelein was “more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship”, according to an arrest affidavit. Police officers recovered a love letter to Oefelein in her car.

A married flight engineer with three children, she was awaiting her next assignment after travelling to space aboard Discovery last July.

Nasa spokesman James Hartsfield in Houston said that, as of Monday, Nowak’s status with the astronaut corps remained unchanged. “What will happen beyond that, I will not speculate,” he said. Hartsfield said he couldn’t recall the last time an astronaut was arrested.

When she found out that Shipman, described as an air force captain assigned to the 45th Launch Support Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, near the Kennedy Space Center, was flying to Orlando from Houston, Nowak decided to confront her. She raced from Houston to Orlando wearing diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop to urinate, authorities said. Astronauts wear diapers during launch and re-entry.

Dressed in a wig and a trench coat with a hood pulled over her head, Nowak boarded an airport bus that Shipman took to her car in an airport parking lot. Shipman told police she noticed someone following her, hurried inside the car and locked the doors, according to the arrest affidavit.

Nowak rapped on the window, tried to open the car door and asked for a ride. Shipman refused but rolled down the car window a few inches when she started crying. Nowak then sprayed a chemical into Shipman’s car that burned her eyes, the affidavit said.

Shipman was able to drive to the parking lot booth, and the police were called.

During a check of the parking lot, an officer followed Nowak and watched her throw away a bag containing a BB gun (type of air gun) and the wig. They also found a steel mallet, a 4-inch folding knife, rubber tubing, $600 and garbage bags inside a bag Nowak was carrying when she was arrested, authorities said.

Inside Nowak’s vehicle, which was parked at a nearby motel, authorities uncovered a pepper spray package, an unused BB-gun cartridge, latex gloves and e-mails between Shipman and Oefelein. They also found an opened package for a buck knife, Shipman’s home address and hand-written directions to the address, the arrest affidavit said.

Police said Nowak told them that she only wanted to scare Shipman into talking to her about her relationship with Oefelein and didn’t want to harm her physically.

“If you were just going to talk to someone, I don’t know that you would need a wig, a trench coat, an air cartridge BB gun and pepper spray,” said Barbara Jones, a spokeswoman for the Orlando Police Department.

If convicted of the earlier charge of attempted kidnapping, Nowak could face a maximum of life in prison.

“It’s just really a very sad case,” Jones said. During her 13-day mission in July, Nowak operated the robotic arm during three spacewalks.

Nowak and Oefelein, who is unmarried and has two children, were both first-time fliers during their shuttle missions last year. They trained together but never flew together.

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