Why did the astronaut crash to earth?

It is truly an astounding story. Astronaut Lisa Nowak stands accused of having traveled from Houston to Orlando to confront her rival, or perhaps to do more serious harm. Selected for having The Right Stuff, how could someone who had flown so high fall so far?

It is well known that astronauts are a select few. They are screened, evaluated and tested in every way, before they even begin to be trained and tested again. I happen to be connected to this process by less than six degrees. My clinical mentor was mentored by a UC Berkeley psychologist who was involved in selecting the original Mercury Seven.

Whether those screening processes are of value or not, it still seems inconceivable that someone with a record of such accomplishment could betray such human fallibility. It is of course made worse by the fact that the fall seems to have involved so much thought, planning and determination. This was no accident.

It will take time before we know the whole story. But this much is certain already: there will be no end to the speculation about how this could have happened. On one news show, an expert commentator said that perhaps it was the result of a "core psychosis" or an emergent "bipolar" disorder. Another commentator offered the opinion that she must have had a massive, underlying sense of insecurity. I also read that this behavior might have been the result of a "narcissistic" personality disorder, a condition that includes a heightened sensitivity to rejection or abandonment. Without specifically seeking to explain Ms. Nowak's behavior, a well-known psychiatrist from Los Angeles said that similar behavior is often the result of a delusional disorder (a form of psychosis) or the result of schizophrenia.

As a clinician, I find most of this speculation to be silly. Each explanation requires us to believe that despite her history of performance and achievement, there must have been something fundamentally wrong with her. The assumption is that her adaptive strengths and capabilities were more apparent than real, or that they were just an illusion. They assume that she was disturbed in some way that no one ever noticed.

What I would suggest instead is that the words of famed psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan apply: in the end, she was "more uniquely human than otherwise." My guess is that in the end, we will learn that she was an ordinary and healthy individual.

However naturally skilled or talented one might be (and no matter how well-adjusted), to face the type of challenges necessary to be chosen for a mission as demanding as space flight, one would have to have a finely tuned sense of self-esteem. In a 2004 Psychological Bulletin article titled "The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem," University of Michigan professors Jennifer Crocker and Lora E. Park wrote:

"Success at this pursuit leads to positive emotions, reduced anxiety, and a sense of safety and control over events and can be highly motivating. On the other hand, failure at the pursuit of self-esteem can lead to feelings of worthlessness, shame, sadness, and anger, leaving people feeling vulnerable to mortality or social rejection or feeling unable to cope with life events."
But how could this lead to such seemingly irrational behavior? In October 2006, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published an article by Northeastern University professors David DeSteno et al: "Jealousy and the Threatened Self: Getting to the Heart of the Green-Eyed Monster." In a series of actual experiments, they:
" demonstrated that threatened self-esteem functions as the principal mediator of jealousy ... and provided direct evidence for jealousy as a cause of aggression."
This recent work fits well with established theory and common observation. Unique about their work is that they actually created a situation involving rivalry and threatened self-esteem, and they provided an opportunity for aggression to be displayed. Their finding was that
"jealousy represents a specific emotional response to a specific form of social rejection: the actual or looming rejection by a partner in favor of a rival ... (and it) mediates actual aggression aimed at partners and rivals."
In the end, I expect that rather than learning that she was disturbed or disordered, we will learn that she was quite simply human, and that the loss of love - or the failure at love - was a blow to her self-esteem that left her vulnerable and unable to cope with life events.
I expect that we will also be hearing more about stressful events in Ms. Nowak's life. Buzz Aldrin is known to have had difficulties adjusting to ordinary living after having walked on the moon. Ms. Nowak trained with those who died in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia explosion. There will be discussion about the time she had to spend isolated from her family and about how one adjusts after returning from a pinnacle.

It could very well be the case that NASA did not miss anything at all in its decision to send Ms. Nowak into space. Although generally not newsworthy, incidents involving similar dynamics happen all the time, and are in fact an everyday occurrence. Until we hear otherwise, there is no need to search the diagnostic manuals to find an explanation.

In my view, what this incident shows is that no one is immune to either the foibles or failings of human nature. What it shows is the power of human emotion and the capacity for passion to overwhelm reason.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi,Ph.D.