NASA Selects Astronaut Crew for Possible Extra Shuttle Flight

This story was updated at 10:28 p.m. ET.

NASA has announced the four astronauts whowould fly the last-ever space shuttle mission next summer, should Congressapprove the extra flight.

Currently, only two shuttle missions remain: theSTS-133 mission aboard Discovery,which is scheduled to launch this November, and STS-134 on Endeavour inFebruary 2011. However, NASA approved a final mission, STS-135, which would flyto the InternationalSpace Station on Atlantis next June. Congress is still mullingwhether to approve the extra flight.

If Congress gives the thumbs-up to STS-135, theshuttleAtlantis would be commanded by Chris Ferguson, a retired U.S. Navy captainand veteran of two previous shuttle missions. Astronaut and U.S. Marine Col.Doug Hurley would serve as pilot, and astronauts Sandy Magnus and retired U.S.Air Force Col. Rex Walheim would be the mission specialists.

Space shuttle fleet retiring

This finalshuttle mission would carry supplies and huge spare partsfor the space station, pieces that are so large only NASA's space shuttles cancarry them.

Atlantis last flew to the space station inMay of this year on what NASA planned to be its final mission. If Congressapproves one extra space trek for the orbiter, the STS-135 mission would be the135th flight of NASA's space shuttle fleet, formally known at NASA as the SpaceTransportation System. The shuttles have been launching into space since April 1981.

NASA is retiring its three-shuttle fleet tomake way for a new spaceexploration plan aimed at sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025. Plansto retire the space shuttles were initially laid in 2004 by former PresidentGeorge W. Bush in the wake of the tragic 2003 loss of space shuttle Columbiaand its seven-astronaut crew.

In August of this year, the Senate approvedplans for the additional flight on Atlantis as part of its NASA authorizationbill, but a House version of that bill has yet to be finalized.

Rescue mission training

Even if Congress nixes STS-135, the fourastronauts will still train for some possible space time.

They'll be the rescue team that brings homeEndeavour's STS-134 crew from the space station, should anything go wrong. NASAis calling this possible "launch on need" mission STS-335. Theshuttle Atlantis would make that flight as well.

Based on recommendations made after the lossof Columbia, NASA has trained a launch on need crew to be ready to fly in theevent of irreparable damage to a shuttle while in orbit. Typically, the nextcrew to fly serves as the rescue crew for the current mission.

"These astronauts will begin trainingimmediately as a rescue crew as well as in the baseline requirements that wouldbe needed to fly an additional shuttle flight," Bill Gerstenmaier,associate administrator for NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate, saidin a statement. "The normal training template for a shuttle crew is aboutone year prior to launch, so we need to begin training now in order to maintainthe flexibility of flying a rescue mission if needed, or alter course and flyan additional shuttle mission if that decision is made."

All four crewmembers have prior space shuttle experience.

Ferguson flew on STS-115 in 2006 and STS-126in 2008. Hurley served as the pilot on STS-127 in 2009. Magnus flew on STS-112in 2002 and launched to the space station in 2008 on STS-126, where she servedfour and a half months as a flight engineer and science officer beforereturning to Earth on STS-119 in 2009. Walheim flew on STS-110 in 2002 andSTS-122 in 2008.

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