Wednesday, March 07, 2007

NASA Punts

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.


Anonymous said...

" one at the space agency has UCMJ authority over military personnel serving as astronauts...."

It is likely that astronauts are assigned to "holding" units in their respective services - the commander of the appropriate unit has UCMJ authority.

"...take a look at Nowak's "official" astronaut photograph,..." (from a spook, no less???)

IMHO, a red herring - I'm sure that her OMPF photo (f/promotions, etc.) has her hair back IAW regs.

"...Adultery is still a punishable offense under the UCMJ; so is fraternization...."

Absent a showing that the adultery was service-discrediting or contrary to good order and discipline, most consensual sexual acts are no longer prosecuted. The universal definition of frat is an improper familiarity between an officer and an enlisted soldier. If discipline is required it most likely will be some type of adverse administrative action, but I'm not familiar w/the "cultural approach" that squids take to such actions.

great blog; vr

Mike H. said...

Trog, the service can argue that their actions were contrary to good order and discipline. The actions are in full public view and are raising questions that could conceivably be grabbed by junior personnel as defense. The only one who would come out of this unharmed would be Capt. Shipman.

Spook I was wrong. I like to imagine zeros acting in a more disciplined way and therefore ascribe bouts of mental breakdown when they screw up. My bust.

Unknown said...

Trog--I'm not sure about the holding units; it would be very insightful to know how their OPRs/OERs are handled. My (limited) knowledge of this matter suggests that their unit of assignment is the Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center. Knowing who writes their performance or efficiency report would clarify that matter, as well as the UCMJ chain. BTW, you would think (for simplicity, if nothing else) that each service would have a rater chain within the astronaut office, with the more senior Air Force or Navy astronauts rating junior personnel.

As for her appearance, call me old school, but even at NASA, Nowak was a Navy Captain, and still subject to dress/appearance standards. Male astronauts who are military officers still meet those standards. Obviously, there's a bit more leeway for women, but that "hairstyle" is not one that Nowak would be allowed to wear if she were wearing the rest of that space suit, i.e. the helmet.

As for the adultery charge, Nowak's conduct was clearly discrediting to the naval service and good order and discipline. But, since she was "assigned" to a civilian agency, no one really cared until she made that fateful trip to Orlando.

Anonymous said...


by holding unit, I'm talking strictly a paper account, like a transient, schools, & hosp. account at HQD-- I think (from publicly available info) the zoomies have one at Bolling(?). I would expect they all get "special" OERs as long as they don't do any thing stupid. But that is pure speculation. I would also guess that they all want to be astronauts, not commanders, raters, supervisors, etc. (again, speculation). A little googling led me to this (not sure of date) open source info: The U.S. Space and Missile Defense Command manages the Army's astronaut program at the NASA Astronaut Detachment at Johnson Space Center. If its a detachment, at most it has an OIC, not a commander.

Not disagreeing on the photo, just think that the "glamour shot" was taken f/NASA publicity purposes, not military official purposes.

The whole thing on the adultery is that I don't think they'll pursue charges against the male merely for dating a psycho or the young AF 03 merely f/being the post-psycho rebound date. If there is an adultery charge against Nowak, it's likely just someone being thorough (and avoiding annoying uncharged misconduct motions from defense attorneys). Still think it will stay at the administrative level.

Again, great blog, not sure how you manage as merely figuring out how to get back to my account has taken me an hour. vr,