A few months after photographing a fairly unknown astronaut, an entire country was introduced to Lisa Nowak. Every media outlet, talk show host, comic, and water cooler jockey couldn’t get enough of the celestial story about a love triangle that orbited around a diaper-wearing astronaut.
In a blue NASA jump suit, I met Lisa Nowak at her childhood elementary school in Rockville, Md. The kids at the school gave her a hero’s welcome as she entered the same cafeteria she sat in as a child. She spoke to the students about her recent trip to space onboard space shuttle Discovery. She showed them video of her launch, how she ate freeze-dried foods, and talked about her mission using robotic arms to repair the International Space Station.
Before she finished, she presented the students with a small owl that the school gave her before her flight. The owl, which is the schools mascot, traveled through space with her during her mission.
After the oohs and aahs, hugs, and many questions, the children headed back to their classrooms and I approach Nowak for my photograph.
After introducing myself I quickly realized that she had forgotten all about our photographic appointment for a story in the Washingtonian. She seemed slightly flustered and anxious. I wasn’t sure if it was because she didn’t want to be photographed or she needed to leave. Nonetheless, I knew I wouldn’t have much time with her.
As we spoke, I quickly looked around for a photo location to place her in. I was greatly limited. The cafeteria wasn’t going to work for a number of reason, and I couldn’t photograph anywhere near a child. So, knowing that the image would be overlaid with her story, I decided that a simple image approach would be best. So out the back door and onto a small patch of concrete we went.
Lisa was cordial, pleasant, and carried on a conversations easily as I photographed her. Even though her body language told me she didn’t want to be photographed, she never complained and floated through it like a seasoned pro.
The photograph ended up running full page in the next issue of the Washingtonian. This was a month before Nowak drove from Houston to track down her ex-boyfriend’s new lover in Orlando. Within hours of their meeting Nowak landed herself in custody, and in the media’s crosshairs. Days later her name and story was read, seen, and talked about across the country.
After the media storm passed and the evidence came to light, it was discovered that Nowak most likely never wore a diaper on that day. The kidnapping charges were never filed and she eventually was sentenced to one-year probation for misdemeanor battery and third degree burglary.
It was sad to see someone’s personal and mental issues become so public, and to see an American Hero’s legacy become tarnished. It’s also sad to realize that one of the thing that seemed to fuel this story’s flame was about her wearing a diaper, which most likely was not true.
Within a few short months of photographing Lisa Nowak, this smiling and proud woman’s world turned upside down.
Somewhere, hopefully, she has landed back on solid ground.