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Published: Friday, 2/9/2007

A fallen star

SO, ASTRONAUTS are human after all.

That's one conclusion readily evident from the flame-out of Lisa Marie Nowak, the space shuttle crew member at the center of NASA's bizarre and excruciatingly public love triangle.

Another conclusion: The space agency should conduct psychological workups on its astronauts regularly throughout their careers, not just - per current policy - when they're hired or when trouble surfaces.

At a minimum, closer internal scrutiny might head off self-destructive meltdowns like that of Ms. Nowak, as well as a repeat of what is surely the most embarrassing scandal in NASA history.

Since the days of the Mercury astronauts of the early 1960s, the men and women who fly in space have become among the most lionized of all American public figures.

They have become heroes, lauded for their brains, guts, and the extraordinary iron will necessary to carry out their extraterrestrial mission. And they've become exemplars of virtue, too.

One of the original Mercury corps, Ohio's John Glenn, was reported to have admonished his all-male colleagues to "keep our pants zipped up" to avoid tarnishing the space program in the public eye. That indelicate reference to chaste behavior was good advice, now as then.

But human beings, even astronauts, have their fragilities and can stray from the straight and narrow.

While we don't know all the lurid details, Ms. Nowak, 43, an attractive and recently separated mother of three children, apparently believed another woman was in competition with her for the affections of NASA shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein, 41, with whom she had trained.

What happened then was described by her friends and acquaintances as "totally out of character" for the Naval Academy graduate, aerospace engineer, test pilot, and shuttle flight engineer: She hurriedly drove 1,000 miles from Houston to Orlando, where she confronted the woman in a parking garage - and the whole world learned that astronauts sometimes wear diapers.

Even if serious criminal charges don't stand, Ms. Nowak's shining career as an astronaut is undoubtedly over. That's a personal tragedy for her and one that, unfortunately for a space program struggling to find its way, may take NASA a long time to overcome.

For the American public, the episode is one more reminder that people are capable of strange and aberrant behavior, and that this is true even of those entrusted with our highest ideals.

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