NASA on Friday revealed the six people who will blast off on what is currently the last scheduled space shuttle mission. The list includes the agency's top astronaut and two others that are in orbit today.
Veteran spaceflyer Steve Lindsey — NASA's chief astronaut — will command the STS-133 shuttle mission to deliver supplies to the international space station. The shuttle Discovery is slated to blast off in September 2010 on the eight-day trek that — if NASA's current plan holds — will mark the end of the shuttle era after 29 years of spaceflight.
"It's the final scheduled opportunity to take supplies to the station, so they're going to be taking a large number of supplies," NASA spokesperson James Hartsfield told SPACE.com. "Certainly, in that sense it's a critical mission."
Joining Lindsey, who will make his fifth spaceflight on the mission, will be Air Force Col. Eric Boe as Discovery's pilot. Mission specialists Alvin Drew, Timothy Kopra, Michael Barratt and Nicole Stott round out the final planned shuttle crew. All are veteran spaceflyers.
Barratt and Stott are currently flying aboard the International Space Station today as members of its long-duration Expedition 20 crew. Kopra just returned to Earth last week with Discovery's STS-128 crew to end his own two-month flight to the station.
"I think that's a first, actually ... certainly a first to have two of them in space," Hartsfield said of astronauts being named to a future shuttle flight while still aboard the station.
Lindsey and his crew will begin training for their mission next month, when he will hand over his chief astronaut position to veteran spaceflyer Peggy Whitson. Whitson, who became the first female commander of the space station in 2007, will be the first woman to hold NASA's top astronaut job.
Is it the last shuttle flight?
NASA plans to retire its three shuttles in the next year or two after completing construction of the International Space Station. Six more shuttle missions are planned between now and Discovery's STS-133 flight.
The space agency plans to replace the shuttle fleet with new Orion spacecraft and their Ares I rockets, but they are not expected to begin operational flights until 2015. NASA's plan for human spaceflight, which includes returning astronauts to the moon by 2020, is currently under review by President Barack Obama's administration.
An independent White House committee has submitted several options for the president's review, some of which including extending the space shuttle program to fill in the five-year gap that currently exists between the shuttle's retirement and its successor.
"We looked at a lot of options in order to close the gap," the committee's chairman Norman Augustine, a former Lockheed Martin CEO, told a House subcommittee this week, adding that the gap would likely span seven years instead of five. "The only viable option to close that gap is to continue to operate the space shuttle."
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