November 10, 2009 / 7:23 PM / 10 years ago

Former NASA astronaut avoids jail for attack

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak pleaded guilty to reduced charges on Tuesday and avoided jail time for her infamous 2007 cross-country pursuit and attack on a romantic rival.

Former astronaut Lisa Nowak speaks to the press after her pre-trial hearing at Orange County Court in Orlando, Florida August 24, 2007. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Nowak, 46, apologized in court to her victim, former Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, before being sentenced to a year on probation.

“I am sincerely sorry to cause fear and misunderstanding and all of the intense public exposure ... I hope very much that we can move forward from this in privacy,” Nowak said after the judge directed her to turn and face Shipman.

Nowak was arrested on February 5, 2007, after police said she drove more than 1,000 miles from Houston to Orlando International Airport, donned a wig to disguise herself, and assaulted Shipman with pepper spray.

Police said Nowak told them she wore diapers so she would not have to waste time on bathroom breaks as she drove to meet Shipman’s plane in Orlando.

Shipman was dating NASA astronaut Bill Oefelein, with whom Nowak also had a romantic relationship. Shipman and Oefelein later married.

Nowak was originally charged with attempted kidnapping, battery and burglary. She pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and burglary of an automobile and could have faced up to six years in prison.

“RAGE AND GLEE”

Shipman said Nowak hunted her down in a dark airport parking lot and attacked her with “a blood-chilling expression of relentless rage and glee.”

“I’m 100 percent certain that Lisa Nowak came here to murder me,” Shipman told the Florida judge, adding that Nowak had researched “corpse dismemberment” beforehand.

She urged the judge not to be fooled by Nowak’s contrite demeanor and described how the attack had destroyed her life and career.

Shipman said she lost her Air Force job because of health problems stemming from the attack. She said she still suffers from nightmares, high blood pressure, chest pain and dizzy spells, and that she barricades her doors and has purchased weapons for personal protection.

Judge Marc Lubet took into account that it was Nowak’s first offense and granted leniency. He ordered Nowak to spend two days in jail but gave her credit for time already spent there after her arrest, making the sentence moot.

He ordered Nowak to prepare and send to Shipman a sincere letter of apology and then to have no further contact with Shipman or Oefelein.

“You are to stay totally away from her,” the judge said.

NASA fired Nowak and Oefelein, though Nowak continues to work for the U.S. Navy in Texas. Shipman and Oefelein moved to Alaska and started a freelance writing and photography business.

Editing by Jane Sutton and Chris Wilson

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