In 2007, a NASA astronaut drove 900 miles to confront and attack a romantic rival

By Jeff Truesdell
October 03, 2019 03:18 PM
Natalie Portman in Lucy in the Sky
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

It’s the criminal assault that launched a thousand punchlines — all of them built around an Earth-bound astronaut who was wearing a diaper.

In 2007 Lisa Nowak, a former mission specialist who’d once flown on a NASA space shuttle, drove 14 hours and more than 900 miles from Houston to Orlando and attacked Colleen Shipman, her perceived rival for the affections of another astronaut, Bill Oefelein, in an airport parking lot. To avoid bathroom breaks on her hurried drive to meet Shipman’s arriving flight from Texas, Nowak told police she wore an adult diaper, a detail later disputed by her attorney.

Disguised in a wig and carrying pepper spray she used to douse her victim, Nowak also packed a steel mallet, a BB gun and a 4-inch knife — items that led to her arrest for kidnapping and attempted murder. She eventually pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of burglary and misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to two days in jail, with credit for time served after her arrest.

Headlines blared about the “astronaut love triangle.” Comics had a field day with the diaper.

Now Hollywood is having its say.

Shaped “in the loosest sense” by those events, according to director Noah Hawley, the feature film Lucy in the Sky opens Friday. It stars Natalie Portman as a fictional astronaut who, spurned after beginning an affair with another astronaut (played by Jon Hamm), buys a wig and pepper spray and drives cross-country to confront the man and his new love in an airport parking lot.

“Obviously people made that connection even when the trailer came out of what the story was inspired by, so I think it was important to be honest about that,” Hawley tells PEOPLE.

No diaper is mentioned in the movie.

RELATED: Astronaut Love Triangle: Colleen Shipman Says of 2007 Attack By Romantic Rival, ‘I Thought I was Going to Be Okay. But It Was Never Okay After That’

For the real-life couple ensnared by Nowak’s crime, however, the story didn’t end with her arrest.

Shipman, who was then an Air Force captain stationed at Cape Canaveral, and Oefelein felt they were brushed aside as NASA swooped in on the PR disaster that followed Nowak’s apprehension, they told PEOPLE in 2016.

Oefelein’s days as an astronaut ended abruptly after the incident. “If I flew you again, the mission would be about you,” a supervisor told him, Oefelein said. He returned to the Navy and retired from his 20-year military career in 2008.

Shipman, meanwhile, was reassigned to lesser tasks by what she believes were well-meaning supervisors, but nonetheless “felt I was being punished,” she said. (She also retired from the military in 2008.) “Everybody from my commander on down was treating me like, why can’t you just make this go away? The prosecutor made the decision [to file charges]. It was not up to me. I wasn’t really pushing anything, except doing what I thought a responsible person would do, which was to report a crime and then cooperate with authorities.”

“I was really surprised and disappointed by her sentence,” Shipman said. “I just didn’t feel like it was worth all the pain of going through that process.”

Colleen Shipman, at left, with William "Billy O" Oefelein in 2007
Florida Today/Malcolm Denemark/AP

A vivacious extrovert, Shipman found herself withdrawing in the aftermath of the attack. Stress caused her to lose weight. She had difficulty concentrating. When she finally braved going out again, she did so with a concealed gun. “It was a personal hell,” she previously told PEOPLE. Nowak “was painted as a kind of victim,” she said. “Everybody looked to somebody else to see who did this to her. I didn’t do anything.”

Shipman wrote in journals to process her heightened, lingering anxiety, and after collecting all the police reports, surveillance tapes and court transcripts from the case, she drafted an as-yet unpublished memoir detailing her side of the story.

Under the pen name C.M. McCoy, she also turned to fiction, releasing a first novel, Eerie, a paranormal romance propelled by an unexpected monster who emerges to upend a world that Shipman’s protagonist (a Pittsburgh-born, Irish step-dancing enthusiast like Shipman herself) thought she understood.

“The story came from my own childhood fears of the dark, which were reinforced by this crime,” she told PEOPLE.

She found plenty of material to mine.

‘Nobody Really Thought She Had This Infatuation’

Investigators learned that Nowak was married when she began a relationship with Oefelein; Lucy in the Sky echoes this. The two had trained together before Oefelein piloted the shuttle Discovery in December 2016, just weeks after he and Shipman had met. Oefelein ended things with Nowak as his relationship with Shipman took off. He carried his new girlfriend’s charm necklace and a photo of her family into space, and Shipman held the hand of Oefelein’s mom at Discovery’s Florida launch.

But Nowak didn’t let go as easily. She discovered (and Lucy in the Sky again echoes) email exchanges between Oefelein and Shipman that described the couple’s plans to spend a weekend together; the details that Nowak learned about Shipman’s flight home to Florida from Texas sparked Nowak’s now-infamous cross-country drive and confrontation.

“There was no rivalry,” Shipman told PEOPLE in 2016. “She was married. Nobody really thought she had this infatuation thing going on.”

Natalie Portman, at left, and Jon Hamm in Lucy in the Sky
Hilary B. Gayle

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In the wig and wearing a trench coat, Nowalk waited inside the Orlando International Airport terminal for Shipman’s post-midnight flight to arrive, then stalked her while Shipman waited for her delayed baggage, according to police.

When Shipman boarded an airport shuttle to a distant parking lot, Nowak followed. Both women exited together at the same stop.

“It was just the two of us on the bus,” Shipman said. “I knew she was up to no good. But I didn’t know if she was going to try anything.”

As Shipman urgently walked to her car and jumped in, locking the doors behind her, Nowak came up and reached for the car door. Shipman jumped. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she recalls Nowak as saying, “My boyfriend was supposed to pick me up and he’s not here — can you give me a ride?'”

A muffled verbal exchange — after asking for the ride, Nowak asked to use Shipman’s phone — unfolded through a closed window. When Nowak said she couldn’t hear Shipman’s replies, Shipman lowered the glass. “That was the dumbest thing in the world,” Shipman said. “That’s when she shot me with pepper spray.”

Lisa Nowak in court in 2007
Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty

Gasping for air, Shipman revved her car and left her attacker behind, racing with clenched eyes toward the exit and help. “Honestly I thought she was going to kill me and steal my car,” Shipman said.

She first heard the word “astronaut” while sitting in the airport police station where both Shipman and Nowak, detained at the scene, were questioned in separate rooms by authorities who found Nowak’s wig and other items dumped in a trash can.

“‘Does the name Lisa Nowak mean anything to you?,'” Shipman was asked.

Shipman searched her mind. She vaguely recalled that Oefelein — nicknamed “Billy O” — had told her the purple bike stored in his Houston apartment belonged to his “buddy” Nowak, a NASA colleague, mom of three and bike-riding pal. “Lisa, Lisa – it can’t be, but I’m pretty sure that’s the name of one of Billy O’s friends,” Shipman replied. “I might even have said, ‘There’s no way that could be her; she lives in Houston.’”

“The craziest things go through your mind,” Shipman said. “I was thinking, well, maybe they have some kind of weird astronaut club initiation thing where they have to go out and scare somebody. I was trying to think of all these reasons, why would somebody do this?”

At the detective’s urging, Shipman called Oefelein in Texas, waking him to confirm the name. The detective later told Shipman that Nowak may have felt scorned and jealous.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Did you forgive Lisa Nowak for what she did?’,” Shipman said. “She committed a crime, she was convicted, she finished her sentence. I’m not sure there’s anything really for me to forgive.”

In 2016, Lawyer Said Nowak Was ‘Doing Well’

In 2010 Nowak received an “other than honorable” discharge from the Navy. She and husband Richard divorced in 2008.

A request for comment by her criminal attorney, Don Lykkebak, was not returned — but in 2016 he told PEOPLE, “she’s doing well.”

Lisa Nowak

Shipman and Oefelein married in 2010, and live a quiet home life in southern Alaska, where Oefelein grew up, with their son William “Junior.” Shipman runs an Irish dancing studio; Oefelein is a freelance military test pilot. “Yeah, I carry around a couple scars,” Shipman said in 2016. “But you can’t really say, ‘Oh I wish something didn’t happen,’ because then who knows where you’d be? And we’re pretty happy.”

Significantly, despite her military discharge, Nowak has not been branded a pariah by her peers. Those who’ve gone into orbit, after all, still represent an exclusive club.

In June 2013 an event organized by NASA and the Johnson Space Center invited hundreds of people to a reunion in Houston, among them Nowak and Oefelein, who alerted Shipman — who planned to attend — that Nowak would be there. Not for a second did he or Shipman think that was a reason to skip it.

“I guarantee you, there’s not an angel in that entire organization,” Oefelein told PEOPLE in 2016: “Everybody makes mistakes. In the end they’re all just people. So yes, [Nowak] was invited to that reunion just like everybody else, because she had done her work and she made it into space.”

The couple and Nowak each hung out with their own group of friends, and did not interact, according to Oefelein and Shipman. “I know who my posse is,” Oefelein said.

Said Shipman: “It wasn’t anything. I wasn’t even curious, if that makes any sense. We had a really good evening. We talked to the people that we — you know, to our friends. I hardly saw her, really. I think I caught a glimpse of her twice, but I wasn’t trying to look, you know what I mean?”

“Nobody was weird, nobody walked on eggshells, nobody said anything,” she said. “Oh, somebody did say something — I don’t even remember who it was. One of the other astronauts came up to me and said, ‘You know’ — she was real nice — she said, ‘Lisa’s a really good friend of mine, and if you ever wanted to talk to her, you know, come and tell me and I can help you guys talk.'”

“I told her ‘thank you,’ but you know, I’m really not interested,” Shipman said. “I don’t really have anything to say. How awkward would that be?”

• With reporting by MIA McNIECE

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