Letters paint different picture of Nowak

November 13, 2009 10:31:41 PM PST
Eyewitness News has a never-before heard account of former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak in the moments after her arrest three years ago. This comes as new documents surface showing astronauts came to her aid just days before her guilty plea this week -- blasting NASA in the process. Four letters postmarked for Houston landed on the judge's desk last week, all of them from Nowak's former colleagues at NASA. They offer a new perspective how a once-respected astronaut may have unraveled into the woman police arrested.

There was a time Nowak was -- quite literally -- on top of the world. Three years after her scandalous arrest, the police officer in charge that night, Charles Hengehold, still wonders what happened to her.

The letters read: "American hero," "Bonafide American hero," "Flew in the shuttle," "Fixing to go up on the very next mission."

"And here we are," Hengehold said. "at the Orlando Police Department airport office in my holding cell. Why?"

Days before this week's guilty plea, Nowak's former colleagues from NASA wrote letters to the judge, portraying her attack on romantic rival, Colleen Shipman, as "totally out of character."

The most revealing letter, written by former NASA flight surgeon Dr. John Clark - pointed a finger at the space agency itself, claiming "in the time Lisa was at NASA, there was a climate that was conducive to degraded mental health."

Dr. Clark is the widower of the late astronaut Laurel Clark, who was killed aboard the shuttle Columbia. In his letter, he described a "let-down period after the tremendous high of flying in space" that could throw astronauts into depression. He also said that rampant marital discord among astronauts was ignored by NASA. "i think in part to downplay any bad publicity," Hengehold said.

After Nowak's arrest, NASA ramped up its psychological testing of astronauts, but determined in Nowak's case, "there was no way to predict her actions."

In their letters to Judge Marc Lubet, two astronauts seem to disagree, recalling Nowak's dramatic weight loss and extreme fatigue. By the night of her arrest, even Hengehold could see the transformation.

"The best way to describe it -- she looked like a transient bag lady from downtown," he said. "In my 26 years as a police officer, I've never wanted to hug a prisoner more than I wanted to hug her. If she's not the poster child for temporary insanity, then who is?"

NASA would not respond directly to any of Dr. Clark's accusations, but pointed us to the results of several lengthy investigations it conducted after Nowak's arrest. In one survey, both astronauts and flight surgeons overwhelmingly expressed they felt confident raising safety concerns and getting those concerns addressed.

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