Image: Steve Bowen
NASA astronaut Steve Bowen conducts a spacewalk during Endeavour's visit to the International Space Station in November 2008. Bowen is due to take on his third shuttle mission in three years, as a replacement for injured astronaut Tim Kopra.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 1/19/2011 12:57:03 PM ET 2011-01-19T17:57:03

NASA has named a substitute crew member for its next scheduled shuttle mission, due to a weekend bike accident that left the Discovery flight's lead spacewalker with an injured hip.

Astronaut Steve Bowen, who flew on the shuttle Atlantis last May during the most recent shuttle outing, will take the place of injured spacewalker Tim Kopra, NASA said Wednesday. That would make Bowen the first NASA astronaut to fly on back-to-back shuttle missions.

Bowen also flew on a November 2008 mission to the International Space Station, which would make the upcoming mission his third shuttle flight in 27 months — assuming, of course, that Discovery launches on Feb. 24 as scheduled.

NASA managers decided to stick to the schedule for Discovery's mission, known as STS-133, even though that would give Bowen just a few weeks to practice for the mission's two spacewalks.

Image: Steve Bowen
Steve Bowen, seen here during a shuttle mission last May, would be the first NASA astronaut to go on two successive shuttle flights.

"Steve is an ideal candidate, and we have complete confidence he'll contribute to a fully successful STS-133 mission," Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said in a statement announcing the switch. "He has performed five prior spacewalks. That extensive experience, coupled with some adjustments to the spread of duties among the crew, will allow for all mission objectives to be accomplished as originally planned in the current launch window."

During the shuttle program's nearly 30-year history, there have been about two dozen cases in which a shuttle crew member has been replaced, due to medical, logistical or personal reasons. "But none of the earlier replacements were anywhere as close to launch as this case," NBC News space analyst James Oberg said Wednesday in an e-mail about the switch.

Robot on the crew
The February mission is aimed at bringing tons of supplies and equipment to the space station, including a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2. An Italian-built storage module would be installed onto the station, and spacewalkers are scheduled to move equipment and hook up cameras on the station's exterior.

Kopra was due to take the lead role on the spacewalks, but on Saturday, NASA reported that he was hurt in a bicycle accident . The space agency said the injury was not life-threatening. Further details on his medical condition were not released officially, due to privacy concerns, but unofficial reports suggested that Kopra had broken his hip.

"Tim is doing fine and expects a full recovery, however, he will not be able to support the launch window next month," Whitson said. "If for some unanticipated reason STS-133 slips significantly, it is possible that Tim could rejoin the crew."

Astronaut Alvin Drew is to serve as the mission's other spacewalker. Other crew members include commander Steven Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Michael Barratt and Nicole Stott. Kopra's non-spacewalking duties would be distributed among the crew, NASA said.

Repeated delays
Discovery's launch was initially planned for last November — but the flight has been repeatedly delayed, primarily due to problems with support ribs on Discovery's external fuel tank. NASA engineers are currently reinforcing the ribs, with the repair work scheduled to be complete in time for a Feb. 24 liftoff.

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STS-133 would be Discovery's final spaceflight, to be followed by Endeavour's last flight in April. As the schedule currently stands, the April flight would close out the shuttle program. Another shuttle mission has been authorized by Congress, but NASA says lawmakers still have to appropriate the funding to support an extra launch for the shuttle Atlantis.

After this year's retirement of the shuttle fleet, NASA will have to depend on space transports provided by other countries, principally Russia.

The space agency is also supporting the development of commercial spaceships that could transfer cargo and eventually crew members into orbit.

Bowen's status as a back-to-back shuttle flier sent space historians to the record books. Although Bowen would be the first American on two successive space crews, Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov flew back-to-back Soyuz flights in July 1984 and June 1985.

"The second mission was an emergency repair to the Salyut 7 space station, and he was picked for the same reason Bowen was picked — most recently flown, and experienced," Oberg observed.

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Timeline: Space shuttle timeline

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  5. Accidental art

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  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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