HOUSTON – The family of Lisa Nowak, the astronaut accused of attempted murder in a bizarre love triangle, says the actions allegedly taken by her to hunt down the woman she believed was her romantic rival for a space shuttle pilot's affections are "completely out of character."
Hiding her face from the cameras, Nowak returned to Texas on Wednesday, a day after being charged in Florida with trying to murder Colleen Shipman.
A police car met Nowak's plane on the tarmac, and the astronaut, her head covered by a jacket, was escorted down the stairs and into the waiting squad car, then driven away.
"She looked thin, looked tired," said John Gruttadaurio, a passenger on who was aboard Nowak's flight from Orlando, Fla.
Nowak was then checked out by doctors at the Johnson Space Center, a NASA official told FOX News, but would not confirm if Nowak had a psychological evaluation. Officials at the space agency later gave a press conference, saying Nowak has been removed from flight status and was put on a 30-day leave.
"We are very concerned about the tragic situation involving Lisa Nowak and we are deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of Lisa," as well as the two others involved, said NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale, calling it a "personal and legal matter."
NASA is very "limited" in its involvement in the situation, Dale added.
Nowak was charged in Orlando on Tuesday with attempted first-degree murder, attempted kidnapping and three other crimes. She was released on bail but ordered to stay away from the other woman and to wear a monitoring device.
Sky News reported Wednesday that a statement was released by Nowak's family, saying "considering both her personal and professional life, these alleged events are completely out of character and have come as a tremendous shock to our family. We love her very much and right now, our primary focus is on her health and well being."
Early Wednesday, Nowak was escorted through the Orlando airport by police. She boarded the plane before everyone else and sat in the back with chief astronaut Steve Lindsey, remaining extremely quiet, passengers said.
Her arrest was a remarkable downfall for a woman whose life seemed to be on a perfect trajectory until a few months ago.
Nowak became an astronaut after winning a series of Navy service awards. She had flown on the shuttle Discovery, and was a mother of three children. She said in a September interview with Ladies Home Journal that her husband, Richard, "works in Mission Control, so he's part of the whole space business, too. And supportive also."
But there were signs that not everything was right in her life.
• PHOTO ESSAY: Astronaut Love Triangle
In a NASA interview last year, before her mission aboard Discovery, she spoke about the strain her career placed on her family. She has twin 5-year-old girls and a teenage son.
"It's a sacrifice for our own personal time and our families and the people around us," she said. "But I do think it's worth it because if you don't explore and take risks and go do all these things, then everything will stay the same."
In November, a neighbor reported hearing the sounds of dishes being thrown inside Nowak's Houston-area home, and the police came. And weeks ago, Nowak and her husband separated after 19 years.
The final unraveling came this week after police arrested her for allegedly trying to kidnap a woman she believed was her rival for the affections of astronaut William Oefelein.
"Perplexed is the word that I'm sticking with," said astronaut Chris Ferguson, who attended Nowak's bail hearing in Orlando with Lindsey.
Jon Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who lost his wife, astronaut Laurel Clark, in the Columbia disaster in 2003, said in a cable news interview on Wednesday that Nowak supported his family then and he supports her now.
"She was a mother before she was an astronaut. I mean, she really was into family life, and what's happened in the last few days has just been totally a shock. She is a really wonderful, good, caring person," he said. "You have to find forgiveness and love in your heart to get her through this."
NASA needs to have a stronger psychological and behavioral health support system for shuttle astronauts, Clark said.
"They don't have to have any evaluation before or after a mission, and it is only when something catastrophic happens does this ever even come to light," he said.
Police charged Nowak with attempting to murder Shipman based on weapons and other items found with Nowak or in her car: pepper spray, a BB-gun, a new steel mallet, knife and rubber tubing.
"We believe that the items that we found certainly would have caused Colleen Shipman serious bodily injury or death," Orlando Police Sgt. Barb Jones said. That was enough for probable cause, she said. The state, which has the burden of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt, will decide on the formal charges to pursue.
Nowak's lawyer, Donald Lykkebak, took issue with the most serious charge against her, saying: "In the imaginations of the police officers, they extend these facts out into areas where the facts can't be supported."
Nowak posted $25,500 bail Tuesday evening, and NASA put her on a 30-day leave and removed her from mission activities.
In court Tuesday in Florida, Shipman filed a request for a protective order against Nowak, asking that Nowak be prohibited from going within 500 feet of her. In the handwritten request, she described Nowak as "acquaintance of boyfriend," but did not identify the man. She said Nowak had stalked her for two months.
Nowak and Oefelein, who both live in the Houston area, had trained together as astronauts, but never flew into space together. Shipman works at Patrick Air Force Base near Kennedy Space Center.
Earlier, Nowak was quoted by police as saying she and Oefelein had something "more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship."
Police found a letter in Nowak's car, however, that "indicated how much Mrs. Nowak loved Mr. Oefelein," an arrest affidavit said. And Nowak had copies of e-mails between Shipman and Oefelein.
Oefelein flew to Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday where he is "voluntarily cooperating with authorities," NASA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said Wednesday. She said the 41-year-old Navy commander wasn't granting interviews to reporters.
Shipman, a 30-year-old engineer assigned to the 45th Launch Support Squadron, could be reached for comment Tuesday.
Nowak's home was unlit Tuesday, and her husband could not be located.
"Personally, Lisa is an extremely caring and dedicated mother to her three children," a statement from Nowak's family said. "Considering both her personal and professional life, these alleged events are completely out of character and have come as a tremendous shock to our family."
Nowak, accustomed to wearing astronaut diapers during the space shuttle's launch and return to Earth, wore them on the drive from Houston so she would not have to make bathroom stops as she raced to confront Shipman at the Orlando International Airport, police said.
Then, according to police, Nowak donned a wig and trench coat, boarded an airport shuttle bus with Shipman and followed her to her car. Crying, Nowak sprayed a chemical into the car. Shipman drove to a parking lot booth for help.
A police affidavit made public Tuesday said Nowak had "stealthily followed the victim while in disguise and possessed multiple deadly weapons."
The affidavit said the circumstances of the case "create a well-founded fear" and gave investigators "probable cause to believe that Mrs. Nowak intended to murder Ms. Shipman."
Lykkebak said that Nowak only wanted to talk to Shipman. Asked about the weapons, he said, "You can sit and speculate all day."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.