People Staff
February 07, 2007 11:55 AM

By now, the story of Lisa Nowak is well known: A highly regarded astronaut whose life came crashing down this week after she confronted a women she believed was romantically involved with another astronaut whom Nowak loved.

But this week’s PEOPLE cover story delves into Nowak’s past and what might have triggered her bizarre behavior, which has left NASA officials, and anyone who knows Nowak, absolutely stunned – and Nowak herself charged with attempted kidnapping and attempted first-degree murder. (Nowak, 43, was released on $25,500 bail and allowed to go home with an electronic monitoring device around her ankle, while her alleged target, Colleen Shipman, 30, has filed a restraining order against her.)

“We’re perplexed and concerned and trying to determine what really happened,” said Doug Peterson, spokesman at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Everything I’ve ever seen gave evidence to me that Lisa was one of our good astronauts; she had all the right background credentials, skills and abilities. We don’t know what happened here.”

On Wednesday, NASA announced that Nowak is undergoing medical assessment, including a psychological evaluation, at the Houston Space Center. She has also been grounded and placed on 30-day paid leave, the space agency added.

A married mother of three, Nowak was in love with Navy Cmdr. William Oefelein, 41, who trained alongside her in NASA’s space shuttle program and piloted the Discovery in a mission last December. At the same time, Oefelein, the divorced father of two children, was apparently romantically involved with Shipman, a U.S. Air Force captain and engineer assigned to a base near Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

How did one of NASA’s very best and brightest wind up in such a desperate situation? What few people knew was that Nowak’s personal life was cracking under the stress of her pressurized job.

Neighbors in the affluent Houston suburb of Clear Lake – where Nowak lived with her husband, Richard, 43, a flight controller in Mission Control for the International Space Station; their son Alexander, 15; and twin 5-year-old daughters, Katrina and Alyssa – had no idea anything was wrong with the couple’s 19-year marriage.

“As far as I knew, everything was fine,” David Silva, who lives across from the Nowaks’ two-story brick home in a cul-de-sac, tells PEOPLE. “They’re good people.”

Even Nowak’s parents weren’t aware her situation was so dire. “Her mother says she wishes she would have known that Lisa was so confused,” says Nowak’s cousin Tony Caputo, 58. “Her family doesn’t know what to do. They are completely devastated by this.”

[IMAGE “1” “right” “std” ]But Nowak’s younger sister Andrea Rose told PEOPLE that Nowak and her husband had recently separated; she also said Nowak never quite recovered from losing three former classmates in the 2003 Columbia shuttle explosion.

“We knew Lisa was under a lot of stress,” says Rose, 41, a lawyer. “But there’s no way of knowing how a particular person will react to stress. We love Lisa and we’re worried about her well-being.”

Nowak “is a very loving mother and a caring person,” adds her brother-in-law Jonathan Rose. “She was someone who played by the rules. To say this is out of character would be a gross understatement.”

For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on sale Friday.

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