NASA Replaces Charged Astronaut for Next Shuttle Mission
Astronauts Terry W. Virts Jr. (left) and Stephen K. Robinson communicate with the Expedition 14 astronauts on docking day for the International Space Station and the space shuttle Discovery during the STS-116 mission in December 2006.
Credit: NASA.

NASA has chosen a substitute spacecraft communicator to replace astronaut Lisa Nowak during the upcoming STS-117 shuttle flight to launch next month, mission managers said Thursday.

Cathy Koerner, lead shuttle flight director for NASA's STS-117 mission aboard the Atlantis orbiter, said Thursday that astronaut Terry Virts will take Nowak's position as lead spacecraft communicator -- or Capcom -- during the upcoming construction mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA placed Nowak on a 30-day leave last week after she was charged with attempted murder, attempted kidnapping and other counts stemming from a confrontation with a woman whom police said the astronaut believed to be a romantic rival for the affections of a space shuttle pilot.

"Terry was my Capcom during [STS-115], and so he's familiar not only to me but to this mission and its content and also to the rest of the flight control team," Koerner said of Virts, referring to NASA's September 2006 shuttle mission in which astronauts performed similar tasks to those set for STS-117.

Virts also served as a spacecraft communicator for one of three ISS Mission Control shifts during NASA's STS-116 shuttle mission in December 2006.

Capcom astronauts serve as the voice of Mission Control to astronauts in orbit, with separate positions in place for both the space shuttle and the ISS. Nowak was training to serve as lead STS-117 shuttle Capcom before NASA placed her on leave.  

Led by veteran shuttle flyer Rick Sturckow, Atlantis' six-astronaut crew is scheduled to launch on March 15 at 6:43 a.m. EDT (1043 GMT).

During the planned 11-day mission, Sturckow and his crew plan to stage three spacewalks to install two massive starboard-side segments of the space station's main truss, unfurl a pair of new solar arrays and stow an older solar wing extending form the outpost's mast-like Port 6 truss.

"I'm quite confident there will be no impact to our mission," Sturckow said of the last-minute Capcom swap.

Sturkow added that he and his crew trained with Virts on specific STS-117 activities earlier this week, and have performed generic flight simulations with him in the past.

"The crew and the team in mission control has been focusing on the preparation of this mission," Koerner said.

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