The full sordid details of the case have yet to come out, but it appears now that she drove from Texas to Florida for the purpose of, according to her, speaking with her romantic rival. This doesn't sound so bad but it's important to keep in mind that her car contained an air pistol, pepper spray, latex gloves, a knife, and garbage bags among other things. I may be somewhat unusual, but these are not in my view elements of a polite conversation with a stranger. Indeed, it appears that Nowak likely agrees with my assessment as she claims the air pistol was intended to entice her rival into a conversation. "Entice" in this case should be read as "coerce." As for the pepper spray... she admits that was a bad idea. So, we have what appears to be a near attempted murder by an astronaut.
Of course the media is having a good time with all of this. It's an astronaut, which is exciting, the object of Nowak's affection is another astronaut, so it's more exciting, and the crime itself is fairly horrible. Of particular interest to the media has been Nowak's wearing of a diaper during her cross-country drive so that she would not have to stop for rest breaks. To most people this sounds a little odd, and sociologically this is a perfect time to think about community norms. Most of us think of Nowak's behavior as bizarre because adults do not wear diapers unless subject to a health problem. Adults certainly don't wear diapers to enable longer drives. So, Nowak's actions violate a common norm. In this case, however, we should remember that Nowak is an astronaut. When you've trained for years to work in space, when you've drilled for hours at a time in a space suit submerged in a tank of water, you get used to various unconventional ways of relieving oneself. For Nowak the diaper wasn't a deviant behavior, it was a common and accepted solution to a routine problem. Those of us from a different community, however, find all this a little strange but for Nowak and her peers it is, at best, slightly eccentric.*
The other issue that's getting a lot of play is the contrast between Nowak, looking crushed in her mugshot, and the sparkling clean images of other astronauts- particularly the origianl Mercury Seven. Hell, if you catch a picture of Nowak prior to this she looks more or less how we expect astronauts to look. Doubtless people will ask what's happened at NASA to permit such a near tragedy to occur.
And in answer I can only point out that the space program was born amid intense geopolitical rivalry and media attention. The original astronauts were brave men, but they were backed up by a nation that had no intention of allowing it's image to be tarnished. Did those early astronauts never do anything we might find shameful? I doubt it- they were people just like the rest of us and, without question, got into all sorts of trouble from time to time. The difference is that they were surrounded, supported, and constrained by a government that was intent on preserving their image. So, to be perfectly honest, if back in the day Gus Grissom had participated in an orgy with three underage girls, the headlines would have read, "Astronaut teaches teens space-stretches." I'm sure it would have been a heartwarming story, too. The simple truth is that much of the glamour has gone out of space travel and today's astronauts are less celebrities and more hard-working professionals. Likewise, the space shuttle is less an advanced sports car and more an aged and much patched pickup. Our astronauts are people who regularly perform a difficult and demanding job for relatively little recognition... but they're still people. It's just that now we all get to see the flaws instead of only being dazzled by their virtues.
I hope Lisa Nowak gets the help she needs, I hope her victim recovers physically and mentally from the assault, I hope that the man being fought over learns from this experience.
And most particularly, I hope that all the other flawed, imperfect, but dedicated, men and women of NASA get the recognition they deserve rather than the tar that now seems likely to be thrown on them.
* In perfect honesty, I have from time to time wished for a cybernetic modification that would allow me to store urine in an internal bag for convenient later disposal. Weird? Probably. Then again, after thinking about it a little, don't you agree it would come in handy?