News & Politics

Lisa Nowak: An Astronaut Reaching for the Stars

Childhood visits to the Air and Space Museum launched Lisa Nowak on a celestial journey. Her profile appeared in The Washingtonian's January issue.

Update: Read more about Lisa Nowak's recent arrest.

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

At Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville, in the same room where she ate lunch as a kid, Lisa Nowak tells students about her summer vacation: a trip into space.

Nowak, 43, was part of a seven-member crew for the space shuttle Discovery. She and Stephanie Wilson repaired the International Space Station using Discovery’s robotic arms. This led fellow astronauts to call them “robo-chicks.”

When she was growing up in Rockville, where her parents, Jane and Alfredo Caputo, a retired microbiologist and a computer consultant, have lived since the mid-1960s, the family loved to ride Metro into DC and spend weekends exploring the museums.

For Nowak, there was only one place to go—the National Air and Space Museum. Beneath the shiny planes and rockets, she fell in love with the idea of exploring the universe. She remembers watching the first moonwalk at home the summer after kindergarten.

From Luxmanor, Nowak went to Tilden Junior High and the now-closed C.W. Woodward High School. She studied aeronautical engineering at the Naval Academy and completed Naval Test Pilot School and a master’s in aerospace engineering before getting selected for NASA in 1996.

Nowak’s mission aboard Discovery was NASA’s second launch since the Columbia disaster in 2003. Nowak, a mother of three, was watching news coverage of the disaster with her son, Alexander, then 12.

Sitting with Alexander as smoke streamed across the screen, Nowak worried how he would react, but he took her hand and said, “Mom, I still want you to go.”

At her 25-year high-school reunion, planned for the same July weekend as her Discovery liftoff, Nowak’s old classmates set up a big-screen TV and crowded around to watch, but stormy weather and technical problems delayed the flight a few days, until July 4.

At Luxmanor this fall, the kids sat astounded at a video of Discovery’s fiery takeoff. They giggled at the sight of Nowak turning somersaults in the spaceship, her auburn ponytail suspended in the zero-gravity cabin. They cringed at the sight of dried space spaghetti and scrambled eggs and raised their arms over their heads to zip into a NASA sleeping bag.

But the moment when all sat up—teachers, students, and the superintendent—was when Nowak gave back to the school a tiny wooden statue of an owl, the school’s mascot, which the school had given her before the flight and which she took into space.

Above her hung silver-and-black cutouts of stars, reminders of Nowak’s journey, which had begun in Washington.