Astronaut Bill Oefelein was in orbit aboard the space shuttle in December when he was sent a steamy e-mail from a girlfriend awaiting his return: "First urge will be to rip your clothes off, throw you on the ground and love the hell out of you."
Fellow astronaut Lisa Nowak apparently discovered that e-mail — and some other romantic messages to Oefelein — before she set off on her bizarre, 900-mile road-trip to confront her rival for Oefelein's affections.
The e-mail was among several hundred pages of documents released this week by prosecutors in the case against Nowak, who is charged with trying to kidnap the e-mail's author, Colleen Shipman.
The e-mails, along with statements taken from Oefelein and Shipman, confirm publicly for the first time that Oefelein had a romantic relationship with Nowak. It lasted two or three years before he broke it off to date Shipman late last year.
Oefelein said he considered Nowak to be one of his best friends at NASA.
"We had a relationship but, you know, never really said the word 'girlfriend,"' Oefelein told investigators. "We were somewhat exclusive. Nobody prohibited anything, but I would consider her exclusive for a period of time."
Oefelein met Shipman while training in Florida several weeks before his December launch aboard shuttle Discovery. They e-mailed each other regularly, including while he was in space, though Oefelein opened the e-mail expressing Shipman's desire to rip his clothes off only after he had returned to Earth in December.
In another e-mail sent in January, Shipman wrote Oefelein at his NASA e-mail address: "I love you and I am head-over-heels IN love with you." Oefelein responded the next day from his office e-mail: "You must really have me around your finger that I can't even function without you here."
Before every shuttle flight, astronauts give NASA a list of friends and family members who are allowed to send them e-mail during a mission. NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said the agency does not monitor the communications between astronauts in space and their friends and families.
"The whole system is set up to ensure as much privacy as possible," Hartsfield said. "No review. No censorship. No anything."
Detectives said they found the romantic e-mails between Oefelein and Shipman in Nowak's possession when she was arrested Feb. 5 in Orlando.
Oefelein and Shipman told investigators they believe the e-mails were taken from a home computer in his apartment. Nowak had a key to the apartment.
Police say Nowak, a mother of three, drove from Houston to the Orlando airport, wearing an astronaut diaper so that she would not have to stop. She donned a wig, confronted Shipman in her car, and pepper-sprayed her through a partially lowered window. In Nowak's car were a BB gun, new steel mallet, a knife and rubber tubing.
Nowak, 43, has pleaded not guilty to attempted kidnapping and burglary with assault. She was released on bail wearing a monitoring device on her ankle. Her lawyer had no comment Tuesday on the documents.
The documents include an undated letter to Oefelein's mother in which Nowak wrote that she was taking steps to divorce her husband so she could be with Oefelein.
"Bill is absolutely the best person I've ever known and I love him more than I knew possible," Nowak wrote. Nowak thanked Oefelein's mother for supporting her relationship with Oefelein, "especially since my parents are not as supportive right now."
Oefelein told investigators that when he broke off his romantic relationship with Nowak in January, she "seemed a little disappointed, but she seemed to be accepting of that."
Oefelein and Nowak still agreed to be gym partners and train for a bicycle race together, he said. Nowak still called Oefelein daily and left friendly messages, he said, but "I wasn't always receptive to the phone call."
The lingering feelings between Oefelein and Nowak worried Shipman. Shipman said she asked Oefelein "point-blank" if his romantic relationship with Nowak was over.
"Because you know how these things go," Shipman told detectives. "I said, 'Is there gonna be some crazy lady showing up at my door, trying to kill me?' He said, 'No ... she's not like that. She's fine with it. She's happy for me."'