NASA has named veteran spaceflyer Rick Sturckow to serve as a backup commander during training for the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour – a mission currently led by the astronaut husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot last week , the space agency announced today (Jan. 13).
The announcement places Sturckow in the backup seat for astronaut Mark Kelly, who is married to Giffords (D-Ariz.) and is currently with her at the University Medical Center of Tucson as she recovers from a gunshot wound to the head sustained during a violent attack on Jan. 8 in Tucson, Ariz.
The space shuttle Endeavour is currently slated to launch on April 19 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to deliver a billion-dollar astrophysics experiment to the International Space Station. It is the second of up to three shuttle missions NASA plans to fly this year before retiring the shuttle fleet for good.
"I recommended to my management that we take steps now to prepare to complete the mission in my absence, if necessary," Kelly said in a statement. "I am very hopeful that I will be in a position to rejoin my STS-134 crew members to finish our training."
Doctors at the medical center say Giffords is making good progress in her recovery and has passed "major milestones" in her recovery, reported MSNBC.com.
For the time being, Kelly will remain the commander of Endeavour's STS-134 mission, NASA officials said.
"Mark is still the commander of STS-134," said Peggy Whitson, chief of NASA's Astronaut Office. "He is facing many uncertainties now as he supports Gabrielle, and our goal is to allow him to keep his undistracted attention on his family while allowing preparations for the mission to progress. Designating a backup allows the crew and support team to continue training, and enables Mark to focus on his wife's care."
Sturckow will join the rest of the STS-134 crew and begin training next week at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The crew is made up of pilot Greg H. Johnson, and mission specialists Michael Fincke, Roberto Vittori, Andrew Feustel and Greg Chamitoff.
Endeavour's 14-day mission to the International Space Station will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and spare parts to the station, including communication antennas and a high-pressure gas tank.
Following today's meeting of top shuttle program managers meeting, NASA officials set the targeted launch time for Endeavour at 7:48 p.m. EDT on April 19. Endeavour's STS-134 mission will be the orbiter's last before it is retired along with the rest of NASA's space shuttle fleet in 2011.
NASA also officially set the launch date for its next shuttle to fly – Discovery – for Feb. 24. Discovery's final mission, STS-133, has been delayed since November due to fuel tank cracks, which are being repaired.
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Denise Chow is a former Space.com staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.