TCS Daily

'Stros Gone Wild

By Rand Simberg - February 9, 2007 12:00 AM

When I first saw the story at a space website, I thought, "well, that's different." But I became more fascinated as the day went on at how it suddenly became the story of the day, everywhere. But on reflection, it makes sense.

A woman drives 900 miles non-stop to confront a romantic rival, with an equipment set from the game "Clue," attempts to get into her car, and squirts her with pepper spray, after which she is arrested and charged with attempted kidnapping, assault, and later, attempted first-degree murder. One web wag noted, "As another famous pilot once said, 'a trench coat and wig and, a knife, BB pistol, rubber tubing and plastic bags....Gosh, a feller could have a pretty good time in Vegas with this stuff.'"

Already, it sounds like a great story-rights prospect for the Lifetime Channel (and of course, we'll find out that a man is to blame).

But as that old late-night commercial goes, "Wait! There's more!"

She turns out to be an astronaut. And not just any old (or young) astronaut. She's an astronaut who had her first (and almost certainly last) flight just this past summer, when she made a name for herself in her handling of the Shuttle's robotic arm.

And if that's not enough, she made her trip wearing diapers, ostensibly so she wouldn't have to stop for those pesky nature calls. In fact, this makes a lot of sense. Long-distance truckers know that the solution is plastic jugs, but an astronaut (particular one of the distaff gender) knows all about long trips with no pottie breaks, and are used to auxiliary undies. It's not clear, though, if she just stopped at the drug store and picked up some Depends, or was using the standard government-issue, space-rated extra-absorbent model, at only fifty-thousand bucks a pair, and if so, if the government will be reimbursed. In any event, what's for a news programmer not to love? For the cable channels, this is like a full-employment act for Greta Van Susteren and Nancy Grace, what with the Duke Lacrosse thing winding down.

Seriously, it's a tragedy, for her and her family, and for the space agency as well. It's not a good time for such PR disasters, as they face severe budget pressure with the new Congress.

Moreover, NASA has to be doing some soul searching, and wondering how this happened, given their screening. It's a psych profiler's nightmare, particularly for the psych profiler who did her last evaluation. They will be asking themselves, "What if this happened on the ISS? Or worse yet, on a multi-year mission on the way to Mars, with no way to get her off the ship?"

That's always a risk, of course, but not as large as it might seem, even with that particular individual. In fact, I suspect that it will be determined that her breakdown occurred precisely because she wasn't on a mission, and had few prospects for getting another one, even before this incident.

First off, regardless of what one thinks about her lapse of ethical judgment, she didn't seem to lose any technical competence. As would usually be the case with a high achiever like this, the whole thing seemed to be meticulously planned, and had her intended victim not been a trained astronaut herself, she might have gotten away with it cleanly, with simply an unsolved murder mystery. For instance, I suspect that her story about not wanting to stop to relieve herself was really not wanting to stop for gas, so she wouldn't be picked up by any security cameras. I wonder if, like other astronauts, she had exterior fuel tanks? Or at least carried some in the trunk? It would be a lot tougher to pull something like this off in close quarters, on a spaceship (hmmmm...Major Mustard, in the airlock, with the lithium hydroxide canister...), and regardless of her ethics, she'd have been less likely to attempt it, simply because she'd judge her chances of success as low.

But still, even if one remains a competent engineer, one doesn't want sociopaths en route to Mars. But would she have done the same thing there?

Frank White has written about the Overview Effect <!--[if !vml]--><!--[endif]-->, based on interviews with astronauts who have been into space, both to the moon and just in low earth orbit, and how they were affected by the experience. Many of them, it turns out, had profound changes to their post-flight lives, for both good and ill. Some turned to religion, some turned (at least for a while) to drink. Alan Bean became an artist, attempting to capture his experience of walking on the moon in a way that crude film could not. Having a peak experience like that can have a depressing effect when it's over. How do you top being the first or second man to walk on the moon? What do you do with the rest of your life?

This isn't just a space phenonemon. In reading Undaunted Courage <!--[if !vml]--><!--[endif]-->, the story of Lewis and Clark's expedition, I was struck by the similar problems that Merriweather Lewis encountered upon his return, failing as a governor and at business, and finally dying in what many think was a suicide. He had "gone where no man (or at least white man) had gone before," and there was nothing left to do with his life that would compare. Probably Lisa Nowak was affected by her flight in some way, if not as dramatically.

But she (and other astronauts) had another problem.

It's NASA's problem.

They have too many astronauts.

There are two reasons for this. The bureaucratic (and ugly) one is that it was in the interest of some (or at least one) previous JSC heads to have a surplus, to provide leverage and power over them. Demand for flights among astronauts was high, as was supply of astronauts, while supply of flight slots was low, so behavior that conformed (including spying on other astronauts) to the director's wishes could be easily and cheaply rewarded.

But the other reason is that the Astronaut Office has always been unrealistic about demand for them. Back at the beginning of the Shuttle program, it was projected to make many more flights per year than it ever managed, so many gullible high achievers were pulled into the program on a flawed premise. This problem has been compounded with the loss of Columbia, and the president's new space policy, which dictates no more Shuttle flights after 2010, with a "gap" for human spaceflight until 2014 (though the agency is trying to close it). But even if there were no gap, the new Orion spacecraft (a throwback to the Apollo capsule, but slightly larger) will only carry four astronauts at a time, compared to the seven that Shuttle holds, and there's no reason to think that it will fly any more often. So prospects for slots are diminished still further.

Lisa Nowack went to the Naval Academy, became a Navy aviator, got her masters in engineering, did all the things that she needed to do to become a NASA astronaut. A few months ago, she achieved her goal, and flew. She was the hero of the moment, but only for a moment.

I'm guessing that she came home from space, and wondered, "What now?" She was still officially an astronaut, but for someone brought up in the culture of what that meant, she may have felt that there were few prospects for another flight for her, with all of the other astronauts waiting their turns for limited flight slots (and perhaps she was unaware, or disdainful, of opportunities in the growing private space sector). Even if all went well, the very first lunar mission was ten years off, and things rarely go well with NASA, in terms of long-term schedules. Perhaps she had been in a marriage that had grown stale, and with adrenalin drained from the excitement of what was probably the peak experience of her career, she reevaluated her life. Apparently, the outcome of that reevaluation played itself out in a non-stop drive from Houston to Orlando, and an ignominious denoument.

It is (one hopes) humans who will eventually settle space, and despite her superstar astronaut status, she clearly remains one of us. Which isn't such a bad thing, in the grand scheme.

NASA is reportedly reviewing its psychological evaluation procedures, to see what went wrong in this case.

Maybe, instead of trying to seek out the Vulcans among us, they should review their entire approach to opening up space, so that it's not just a peak experience for a lucky (or are they?) few, with a letdown afterward, but instead a different one that might allow thousands (of humans) to go, affordably, as often as they want, for their own purposes. We need to have a space industry that's run not by "the right stuff" (which we now see can turn into the wrong stuff), but by the "green stuff." But then, what would be so great about being an astronaut?

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his web log, Transterrestrial Musings.


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