February 21-27, 2007

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Lisa Nowak, Astronaut

By Annalee Newitz

I LIVE a world where there are sensationalistic news stories about female astronauts going on possibly murderous rampages. Let me tell you why this makes me a happy person. But first, let's recap. Lisa Nowak is a former astronaut who two weeks ago attacked Colleen Shipman, a woman whom she considered a romantic rival.

What Nowak did was violent, stupid and wrong—as well as fairly typical for a crazed stalker. But the facts of the case were undeniably salacious headline bait. Nowak is famous for flying in the Space Shuttle, so you've got the celebrity angle. She committed a crime for love, which is always sort of thrilling; and the way she did it was bizarro.

If you'll recall from newspaper accounts, she zoomed to a rendezvous with Shipman in a grueling, 12-hour cross-country trip, wearing adult diapers so she wouldn't have to take bathroom breaks (something she no doubt learned on the Shuttle). She packed her trunk with a BB gun, a mallet, rubber hoses and garbage bags. When she attacked Shipman with pepper spray, she was wearing a strange wig and freaking out. Now charged with attempted murder, Nowak has been widely described in the press as having developed some sort of post-space traumatic syndrome because she knew she would never fly the soon-to-be-retired Shuttle again.

And this is where I start to feel happy. It would have been easy for pundits and sensation-loving journalists to paint Nowak's situation as an example of why ladies crack under the pressure of being astronauts. But you know why they couldn't do that? Because there are too many female astronauts, such as Eileen Collins and Bonnie Dunbar, who didn't crack and are leading perfectly normal lives.

Even better, there are men astronauts who did crack up, like Buzz Aldrin, who did so in a big way when he got back to Earth and had to shed his "hero" identity. Aldrin became an alcoholic and was consumed with depression for many years after his moon walk, and he has talked about this openly in some of the stories about Nowak.

Nearly every account I have read about Nowak's actions—in both small and large publications—has attributed her breakdown to stress over having such a high-profile job. There are no hints that she suffered from girly nerves or that women can't juggle home life and work life. Instead, the entire situation is reported exactly the way it would have been if she had been a famous man who lost it for reasons that have nothing to do with gender. I like living in a world where we explain women's sensational crimes in the context of their careers rather than their gender or their families.

The other thing that makes me happy about the Lisa Nowak case is that it confirms something I've always known to be true: Women can be as physically dangerous as men. In courtrooms and pop culture, women have traditionally been viewed as essentially nonviolent, capable of violence only under extraordinary circumstances. As a result, women have often gotten lighter sentences than men for everything from murder to battery.

Ann Jones' sociological study Women Who Kill is in large part a chronicle of how judges have refused to convict women of murdering their children because the ladies are considered victims of postpartum depression. (Men under similar circumstances are given harsh penalties for filicide.)

In a twisted way, the public reaction to Nowak's assault on Shipman—the fact that she was accused of attempted murder and that her violence was taken seriously—is heartening. Nobody is framing this incident as a "cat fight"; nobody is saying Nowak is innocent because she was going through menopause or something absurd like that. She is being treated like the dangerous and potentially homicidal person that she is. Nobody is fishing around for a way to let her off the hook because she's a chick.

I like living in a world where women are dangerous. Even better, I like living in a world where people acknowledge that women are dangerous so they're less likely to mess with us. By the same token, when women do go on violent rampages, I want those women held responsible for their actions and punished the same way men are. That's not PC equality. That's the real thing.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who has paid for her violent crimes.

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