The front seats aboard the space shuttle Discovery will be filled by two veterans of orbital flight when the spacecraft launches July 1.
In command of the upcoming space shot is three-time shuttle flyer and U.S. Air Force colonel Steven Lindsey, who will fly alongside pilot Mark Kelly during the planned 12-day mission.
Between themselves, Kelly - a U.S. Navy commander and aviator - and Lindsey have amassed more than 9,000 flight hours on 100 different aircraft throughout their careers and are both looking forward to Discovery's STS-121 mission.
"We're kind of the stepping stone going from return to flight back into space station assembly," Lindsey said. "Each mission has to accomplish their objectives before the next mission can launch."
NASA's STS-121 mission will mark the agency's second shuttle test flight since the 2003 Columbia tragedy. Lindsey and his fellow crewmates will test a series of shuttle launch system modifications and repair techniques during their flight to the International Space Station (ISS).
Lindsey, 45, is a native of Temple City, California and joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1996 after one year of training and 14 years with the U.S. Air Force.
"I didn't always necessarily want to fly in space my whole life," Lindsey said in a NASA interview.
While the shuttle commander-to-be was eager to reach space at age 8 after watching astronaut Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon in 1969, but his attention quickly shifted towards aviation.
"When I got older and into high school, I kind of set that aside," Lindsey said this month. "My dad was an engineer, and I wanted to fly airplanes."
Lindsey graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1982, and later became a test pilot to shake down new weapons systems for F-16 and F-4 aircraft.
Discovery's STS-121 mission is very similar to his weapons test flights, because of the sheer amount of computer modeling and simulations conducted to make sure the orbiter and its external tank are it to fly, Lindsey said during a prelaunch press conference.
"I'm not here to be a personality or anything," Lindsey said. "I am here because it's an opportunity to combine what I love, flying and using my education."
After joining NASA, Lindsey served as pilot on two shuttle missions - STS-87 in 1997 and STS-95 in 1998 - and later commanded the STS-104 mission, which delivered NASA's Quest airlock to the ISS in 2001.
While Lindsey is acutely aware of the risks of human spaceflight, the impact is more felt by his wife Diane - whom he met while playing saxophone in Temple City High School - and their three children.
"It's a little bit harder for my family because they're not going on the missions," Lindsey has said, adding that he has assured them that if he believed NASA was taking unacceptable risks, he would not fly. "So at least they're reassured that I think it's safe as we can before we go."
Shuttle pilot Mark Kelly has one orbiter mission under his belt during his STS-108 flight aboard Endeavour in 2001. Selected to join NASA's astronaut ranks in 1996, Kelly has almost 20 years of experience as naval aviator.
"I feel very privileged...it has been everything I've expected, and that's not even including the flying-in-space part of the job," Kelly told reporters in a preflight interview.
Hailing from West Orange, New Jersey, Kelly, 42, is a father of two children with whom he has taken great care to explain the risk of human spaceflight.
"We've talked about the problems with Columbia, that those problems have been fixed, and that we don't expect the same issues with Discovery," Kelly said. "I try to do my best to make sure that it's a good experience for them."
Kelly flew as naval aviator during two deployments to the Persian Gulf and flew 39 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm. He joined NASA after serving as a test pilot instructor for the U.S. Navy.
Kelly is not only the shuttle pilot for STS-121, but also serves as the inside man for mission specialists Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum, and will help coordinate their actions during up to three spacewalks.
"It's a different focus in space for me," said Kelly, who handled robotic arm operations during his previous flight. "This flight has a lot more its plate than STS-108 did, and I think we're going ot be a lot busier."
But Kelly said that despite the hectic schedule and risk, the STS-121 flight and subsequent shuttle missions would reap huge rewards for the country overall, though his heart would be set on a Mars mission if possible.
"I think it would be interesting to look back at Earth as a dot instead of looking back from the Moon," Kelly said. "And it would be interesting to go to a real planet instead of, you know, a satellite planet."
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