The Rehabilitation of Astronaut Lisa Nowak

By: Carey Roberts

It was one of those stories that not even a Hollywood scriptwriter could dream up: A NASA astronaut stows a steel mallet, 4-inch knife, rubber tubing, gloves, and trash bags in her car. She straps on an astro-diaper and drives 900 miles to Orlando. During the wee hours of February 6, she disguises herself with a wig, glasses, and trench coat. Confronting her romantic rival in the airport parking lot, she douses Colleen Shipman with pepper spray.

An outrageous deed, for sure. Have you noticed that the more bizarre the crime, the more persons lean over backwards to make excuses for the perp?

Like school teacher Debra Lafave who raped a 14-year-old student in Florida. Her lawyer claimed, “To place an attractive young woman into that kind of hellhole is like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions.” That raw appeal to judicial chivalry relieved Lafave from the inconvenience of a single day of jail time.

And remember the Clara Harris case? In 2002 she repeatedly mowed down her husband, David, with her Mercedes-Benz. Both of them had been involved in extra-marital affairs. Now serving a 20-year sentence in a Texas prison, she was ordered last month to pay $3.75 million in restitution to her ex-husband’s family.

But guess who the media portrayed as the “lying, cheating scumbag” who “deserved what he got”? Hint: CBS portrayed Mrs. Harris in a 2004 movie as the betrayed wife and pitiable victim. [source]

So back to Orlando, Florida, where we discover that literally within hours of the crime, the rehabilitation of Astronaut Lisa Nowak is set to begin.

Initially the prosecutor charged Nowak only with attempted kidnapping. Excuse me, Mr. Prosecutor, but exactly how do you kidnap a person with a steel mallet, latex gloves, and trash bags?

Soon two fellow astronauts flew to Orlando. No, not to conduct an inquiry or make sure the victim was recovering from the attack. Rather, “Our primary concern is [Nowak’s] health and well-being, and that she get through this,” according to Steve Lindsay.

The first round of news coverage was objective, featuring photos of Nowak being lead into the courtroom in handcuffs, her head hanging in shame. But the very next day, the public rehabilitation of Lisa Nowak would begin in earnest.

On Wednesday, media coverage turned jocular. Newstands were filled with headlines about Astro-nut Nowak, Lust in Space, and the Dark Side of the Loon. Anything to keep persons’ minds off the sobering reality of an innocent person being bludgeoned with a hammer.

And drooling over the high-profile story on Valentine’s Day, newspapers speculated whether Nowak had caused the break-up of the marriage of her love object two years before.

By Thursday, media coverage had morphed into a soap opera promo: “The sad tale of Lisa Nowak” and “Lisa Marie Nowak’s life was falling apart” were the leads of two articles I saw.

Even level-headed columnists went gah-gah.

Myrna Blyth suggested the attack was not as strange as some might think, claiming in her Feb. 9 column, “There’s a crazy astronaut in all of us.” And John Derbyshire pooh-poohed the entire episode, saying that “women are not actually very good at this sort of thing.” I’m sure that assurance will come as consolation to the grieving families of the 1,200 persons who are knocked off every year by hit-women.

Of course when People magazine did its front-page story, it was all about Lisa, Lisa, and more Lisa: a “naturally gifted” woman who yearned for a space career at the tender age of five, Robo-chick astronaut, and a stressed-out but “very loving” mother of three.

And what about Colleen Shipman, victim of the premeditated murder attack? In the entire 6-page spread, People magazine devoted a grand total of 5 sentences to her plight. Sorry, Colleen, your harrowing experience just didn’t fit into the storyline.

Mind you, the crime took place last week, and the rehabilitation of Lisa Nowak has only just begun. We’re still awaiting a call from Katie Couric, and of course the obligatory Oprah interview.

And soon we’ll be hearing that Nowak was the heroic survivor of an abusive childhood, she waged a lonely campaign to break the glass ceiling, and her ex-husband once raised his voice in stern rebuke.

Before long we will all agree that Lisa Marie Nowak, despondent from the recent break-up of her 19-year marriage, was unwittingly seduced into a love triangle and attempted a Halloween-type prank in futile revenge. Her actions were surely more worthy of sympathy than scorn.

At that point, what need will there be for a trial?

Carey Roberts is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.

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