Ever since the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson, Ariz., there have been questions about whether Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, would command a shuttle flight currently schedule for launch in mid-April.
NASA refused to comment for several days on Kelly’s status in the aftermath of the horrific shootings. For now, it appears to be hedging its bets.
The space agency announced on Thursday (Jan. 13) that Rick Sturckow, who has commanded two previous shuttle flights, will serve as backup commander of the upcoming STS-134 flight while Kelly cares for his wife, who remains in critical condition. Sturckow will “facilitate continued training for the crew and support teams” during Kelly’s absence, NASA said.
“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 released by NASA. “I am very hopeful that I will be in a position to rejoin my STS-134 crewmembers to finish our training.”
“Mark is still the commander of STS-134,” added Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office.
The shuttle launch schedule has been disrupted by a construction flaws in the external fuel tank to be used on the next scheduled shuttle flight, STS-133. Fixing the problem aboard Shuttle Discovery has pushed back the launch of Kelly’s 14-day mission to the International Space Station to this spring.
Given the shuttle schedule delays and the surprisingly rapid recovery of Rep. Giffords, who had chaired a House subcommittee overseeing NASA until Republicans regained control of the House, it appears there is an outside chance that Kelly could still command the shuttle mission.