For those of you that follow the earlier Star Trek series and the Vulcan Spock, will recognize “Amok Time” as the insane period of passion where the non-emotional and analytical Vulcan species are driven do anything to mate with their betrothed. Spock even went to the brink of getting in a fight-to-the-death wtih his beloved Captain during Amok Time. (Wikipedia post here.)

That being said, we are all left with an unfathomable lingering fog as to what would drive a married Naval Academy graduate test pilot astronaut to travel 900+ miles in diapers to accost a perceived competitor in a perceived love triangle that probably never existed to begin with?

Granted, just because someone is smart, driven and successful, even among our finest military, political or business leaders, does not mean the person knows a whit about affairs of the heart. As the tawdry tapes of Prince Charles and Carmela speaking to each other in nauseating terms can attest, people can be reduced to blathering idiots when their thoughts turn to love (or infatuation).

In the most recent public expression of love by a well-rounded and successful Space Shuttle Astronaut tells us, reason can be thrown out the window along with wigs and other things, when emotion shuts down the thinking part of our brains.

Ms. Nowak had 3 kids, two of them twin 5 year olds, a job which commands large amounts of time and continuous study, lots of TDY time to Florida and PR stints throughout the country and the very real down-to-earth responsibilities of homework, laundry, crying 5 year olds, a (probably) dating 15 year old high school son, AND to be a doting wife to a husband of 19 years. Her life was teatering on the edge for years and career women of all stripes can attest to the strain that a normal career can have on a person, let alone someone with the high profile job of an astronaut.

NASA is not known for its great management and as many professionals can attest, going to one’s superior and telling them you need a mental health break is not usually condusive to one’s career. Apparently, there were clues to problems previous to Ms. Nowak’s tragic actions. I suspect that she did not have the option of going to her superiors and telling them she needed a break. Sure, we are told, the astronaut corps is a tight-knit family group that takes care of their own. People I know that work in Houston confirm that. However, it is also traditionally, a corps of military test pilots and former military officers to whom “macho” is considered essential – even among the women. Sure, she would have been offered leave, but she would never again fly aboard a Space Shuttle or served at the communications console at Houston Control. I suspect that Lisa Nowak had no relief valve and neither do any of the other astronauts or professionals at NASA.

Universities and many religious denominations recognize the strain that highly driven professionals are under for extended periods of time and many REQUIRE a sabbatical of at least 3 months to be taken periodically (the Methodist church, I can attest to, requires sabbatical leaves of at least 3-6 months every 7 years of its pastors). This requirement relieves people from the responsibility and stigma of asking for a much-needed rest. Perhaps NASA needs to do the same.

I am deeply saddened by the image of Lisa Nowak – a career shattered, one of America’s finest having her innermost thoughts played out in the international press, and all that NASA training wasted. A further problem is the deepening tarnish of the image of NASA and the discouragement of those of us who dream for wider space travel by the very real spectacle of lowered funding in the midst of the disgrace of this once great American agency icon.

I am also saddened personally, as space travel for women was not available for me as a young girl to dream about, as only men were selected as astronauts, so it hurts even more to see a woman who did get to live my dream be so utterly shattered. It is also, unfortunately, indicative of our society as a whole. How many lives are shattered because people just don’t feel they have a way out? Mental illness and mental incapacity due to stress is still viewed as shameful in our society.

Perhaps NASA can pave the way on earth, as they have done in space, and begin requiring mental health breaks (sabbaticals) for those folks in whom our nation has place such a great stake. Just a thought.

***Update***

Fox News online has an article about the stress on female astronauts – remember, you read it here first… “Observers: Astronaut Lisa Nowak Suffered ‘Mental Anguish’ Over Career, Love Life”