Mental Health in Outer Space

  • 2017-03-14
  • Scientific American

In 2007, a woman named Lisa Nowak drove 900 miles to the Orlando airport, bringing a knife, a mallet, rubber tubing, and a BB gun. At the airport, she wore a black wig and followed Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman in the parking lot. After Shipman declined to give her a ride, Nowak began crying and then tried to pepper spray Shipman, according to police reports.

Nowak was subsequently arrested and charged with attempted murder. Police said she had planned to harm Shipman over an apparent love triangle. The case drew international headlines and, over the next two years, media outlets followed whether Nowak would pursue an insanity defense in court.

Why did this attack receive so much coverage?

Nowak was an astronaut.

This bizarre incident called attention to NASA's medical practices and the role of mental health in space flight. Just months earlier, Nowak had flown on the shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station, where she controlled robotic instruments during spacewalks. Now, she awaited criminal trial, reportedly diagnosed with a brief psychotic disorder and major depression, among other conditions.

Dr. Patricia Santy, a psychiatrist who worked as a NASA flight surgeon, publicly criticized the agency, saying “NASA tends to deny behavioral issues are a big problem for astronauts.” NASA’s Johnson Space Center conducted an internal review of its medical assessments, recommending additional mental health screenings for astronauts.