Shortly after the Lisa Nowak scandal broke, we predicted that the lovelorn astronaut would quietly “resign” from the space program in about three or four months. We also noted that Captain Nowak’s departure from the space agency might create something of a problem for the U.S. Navy, which would “regain” administrative control of the senior officer.
In our relentless pursuit of accuracy, we must point out that our timeline for Nowak’s departure from NASA was a bit off. The agency today announced that Captain Nowak has been fired from the astronaut corps, effective immediately. NASA officials said that the action did not indicate the agency’s belief in Nowak’s innoncence or guilt, but reflected the lack of an “administrative system” to handle the allegations against her. Captain Nowak is facing charges of kidnapping and assault (among others), after attacking a woman she viewed as a romantic rival. Nowak’s dismissal came barely a month after her arrest–and brief confinement–in Orlando, Florida. So much for quietly easing her out the door.
In justifying its action, NASA notes–correctly–that it technically lacks the authority to punish Nowak, beyond her removal from the astronaut corps. As a career naval officer, Captain Nowak is subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and apparently, no one at the space agency has UCMJ authority over military personnel serving as astronauts. Until now, there was apparently no need for that sort of mechanism at the agency; thanks to its rigorous screening procedures, NASA assumed that all of its astronauts–including military officers serving in the program–were of the highest ethical and moral character. As far as actually meeting those standards, Nowak and her colleagues were apparently “on their own.” This highlights an important lesson for the military (and the agency), as we noted when the scandal first broke:
“…the military (apparently) needs to tighten control of personnel assigned to the astronaut office in Houston. Historically, the military has adopted a “hands off” approach to officers who qualify as astronauts. While serving with NASA, military personnel retain their rank, pay and other benefits, but supervision is minimal, and enforcement of standards is apparently lax. For example, take a look at Nowak’s “official” astronaut photograph, linked here. I’m hardly an expert on Navy dress and appearance standards, but Capt Nowak’s “spacesuit” hairstyle does not appear to be within military limits. If you’re willing to compromise on one of the fundamental standards for any member of the armed services (dress and appearance), you’re probably willing to cut corners in other areas, too.”
Now, the issue of “what to do” about Captain Nowak is the responsibility of the Florida courts–and the U.S. Navy. It still seems likely that the service (for now) will let the civilian justice system run its course, then determine if additional charges will be filed under the UCMJ. Nowak will almost certainly ask for retirement from active duty (if she hasn’t already), but it’s unlikely that the Navy will grant that request before she has her day in court. Meanwhile, the service will create some sort of “special assistant” position for her, perhaps at the Naval Air Stations at Kingsville or Corpus Christi, Texas. The job won’t involve any real work, but it will keep her out of the public eye, and give her a chance to work with defense attorneys on the Florida case.
Meanwhile, there’s the nagging issue of how NASA–and the Navy–will deal with Nowak’s former lover, astronaut William Oefelein. A Navy Commander (O-5) and shuttle pilot, Ofelein has told police investigators that he and Nowak had a lengthy affair, but that relationship ended before he started dating Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman–the woman that Nowak attacked in Florida last month. Commander Oefelein is divorced, but Nowak was married at the time of their relationship. Adultery is still a punishable offense under the UCMJ; so is fraternization. As a Captain, Nowak outranked Oefelein. And he, in turn, outranks Shipman, violating the informal “one grade up/one grade down” rule that the military often uses in determining what is (or isn’t) fraternization.
True, Commander Oefelein didn’t try to attack or kidnap anyone, but he hasn’t covered himself in glory in this sordid episode. As of right now, he’s still a member of the astronaut corps. We’ll see if NASA decides to give him the boot as well. If that happens, the Navy will have another legal (and public relations)debacle on its hands.