Warning: Contains spoilers for the movie Lucy in the Sky.
The words “inspired by real events” appear onscreen before Noah Hawley’s directorial debut, Lucy in the Sky, out October 4. Lucy in the Sky is not a straightforward regurgitation of a headline-grabbing story. Instead, screenwriter Hawley constructed an entire backstory to answer a single question: Why? Why would a woman drive across the country for days straight to confront a lover and his new lover?
In 2007, astronaut Lisa Nowak put on a wig and an adult diaper, drove 900 miles across the country to confront her ex-lover’s new girlfriend, and was charged with attempted murder. Scandal ensued. And naturally, so did a movie.
In answering the question, Hawley introduces new elements in Lucy’s life not present in the Lisa Nowak story. Steady and even-keeled, Lucy is the ballast of her family. She’s married to a kind-hearted NASA publicist (Dan Stevens) and is raising her errant brother’s daughter after he disappeared yet again.
Above all, though, Lucy is a woman utterly changed by outer space. After staring at the Earth from above during her mission, Lucy is jolted by the perspective of life back on the ground. She finds the human world puny and insignificant, and longs to be back in space. So, she competes to be a part of the next mission — alongside Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz), who later becomes her romantic competition, too.
When she lands, the things that made her happy no longer do. Her husband is annoying. Her responsibilities are meaningless. She begins an affair with Marc Goodwin (Jon Hamm), a fellow astronaut, and her old, extremely responsible self slowly begins to unravel to reveal a woman who works on impulse.
If that’s Lucy in the Sky’s interpretation, what’s the real thing? Many details are different. Nowak and Oefelein had an affair for two years, not a few weeks. She had three children, not a niece. And there was, as reported, a diaper involved. Here’s the real story.
Who is Lisa Nowak?
Lisa Nowak was born in Washington, D.C., in 1963. Like Lucy in the movie, Nowak’s career began in the Navy. She studied aerospace engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy. After serving as a Naval Flight Officer for nearly a decade, she was hand-selected for the astronaut program in 1996.
A decade later, Nowak did it: She made it to space. In July 2006, Nowak was part of a 13-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Her specialty was robotics. Nowak operated the robotic arms of the shuttle and the International Space Station.
As in Lucy in the Sky, Nowak was devastated when a colleague was chosen over her to go on a shuttle mission in 2006. Around the same time, her relationship with fellow astronaut William “Bill” Oefelein was falling apart.
Inside Lisa Nowak and Bill Oefelein’s relationship
Nowak and Oefelein’s relationship dates back to a 2004 expedition to Canada. In 2004, the two astronauts spent 10 days in a survival training program outside of Montreal. They had to find their way through the wilds of Canada in winter. Think a romance like The Mountain Between Us. Later, they were on the bicycling team together.
While employees of NASA are allowed to date, Nowak and Oefelein kept their affair a secret from colleagues and spouses – though some coworkers were suspicious. Eventually, both of their marriages broke up. Oefelein divorced his wife in 2005. Nowak planned to divorce her husband, writing, “Bill is absolutely the best person I’ve ever known and I love him more than I ever knew possible. I am in the process of completing all of the official divorce paperwork.” (They divorced in 2008).
By then, her relationship with Oefelein was ending. Oefelein broke things off in late 2006 after he started to get close to Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, a 29-year-old whom he had met at a house party. Oefelein told Shipman that he’d been seeing a colleague, but their relationship had ended amicably.
Nowak tried to confront Shipman
Nowak didn’t take the end of the relationship end well. She was still very much in love with Oefelin. In 2007, a few weeks after the breakup, Nowak broke into Oefelein’s Houston apartment and discovered Shipman’s identity and location. She also found emails between the lovers. Oefelein and Shipman kept in touch while he was in space.
In February of 2007, Nowak set off to drive 950 miles from Houston to Orlando, FL (in Lucy in the Sky, her destination is San Diego) to confront Shipman.
But she didn’t want to stop along the way. Nowak wore maximum-absorption diapers — the kind astronauts wear in space — during her trip. There were 30 unused diapers in her car. For reasons not adequately explained, Portman doesn’t wear diapers in the movie.
Disguised in a trench coat and wig, Nowak confronted Shipman in a parking lot of the Orlando International Airport and sprayed pepper spray in her car. She was quickly apprehended.
In Nowak’s car, authorities found incriminating items like a steel mallet, a BB gun with ammo, duct tape, bondage instructions, and pepper spray. But Nowak told police she didn’t mean to harm Shipman. She just wanted to talk.
What was the aftermath?
Nowak was arrested and charged with attempted murder and kidnapping. She was sentenced to two days in jail and one year of probation. She and Oefelein became the first astronauts NASA publicly dismissed. Three years later, Nowak was demoted from Navy Captain to Commander and discharged from the Navy — not under honorable conditions.
Today, Nowak lives an extremely private life in Texas. She works in the public sector.
Shipman and Oefelein are now married and have a son. In 2008, they moved to Alaska, where Oefelein grew up. The couple runs a business called Adventure Write, a writing company for kids. Shipman is a YA novelist.
All these years later, though, the incident is still raw for Shipman. “It was absolutely debilitating. I do still have anxiety,” Shipman told Inside Edition in 2017. “I’m always looking over my shoulder.”