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Atlantis mission gives rookies a chance to fly

Atlantis' international seven-man crew is short on space experience, but that is on purpose. NASA wants to give as many rookie astronauts a shot at space before the shuttles are retired.
Image: Shuttle crew
German astronaut Hans Schlegel takes the microphone during a photo opportunity at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Behind Schlegel are, from left, French astronaut Leopold Eyharts, NASA astronauts Stanley Love, Rex Waldheim and Leland Melvin, pilot Alan Poindexter and commander Stephen Frick.Pierre Ducharme / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Atlantis' international seven-man crew is short on space experience, but that is on purpose. NASA wants to give as many rookie astronauts a shot at space before the shuttles are retired in less than three years.

Mission commander Stephen Frick said NASA will need experienced astronauts for the follow-on spaceships, and the only way to ensure that is to give some of the scarce shuttle seats to the younger members of the corps. Three are rookies.

"We have a total of four spaceflights among seven people," he noted. On Frick's last mission, one astronaut was making his seventh spaceflight, "almost double what my entire crew has."

"We've tried to make that up a little bit by really talking closely with folks who have had three, four, five, six, seven flights," Frick told The Associated Press before Thursday's scheduled liftoff.

The fact that Europe's Columbus orbital laboratory is being brought up to the station has given a strong international flavor to the mission — and there's an international look to the crew as well.

Atlantis is providing a ride for French astronaut Leopold Eyharts, who is due to spend two months aboard the orbital outpost to help Columbus get off to a good scientific start. Eyharts replaces NASA astronaut Daniel Tani, who will fill his seat for Atlantis' return to Earth.

Germany's Hans Schlegel is the other European Space Agency representative on the seven-man crew. Rounding out the crew are two Gulf War pilots, a veteran of the Air Force Space Command, an astronomer and a former NFL draft pick.

Here's the full lineup for Atlantis' mission:

Stephen Frick, commander
Frick has an inside source for all things related to the space station: his wife.

He is married to mechanical engineer Jennifer Rhatigan, who helped design the space station's power and thermal systems and has worked longer at NASA than he has. They met at Johnson Space Center in Houston after he became an astronaut in 1996.

"It's great. She's very knowledgeable and, actually, if I have questions about that stuff, I usually go to her first," he said.

Frick, 43, a Navy commander from Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, is making his second trip to the international space station. His first was in 2002.

He flew 26 combat missions in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

He and his wife have no children.

Alan Poindexter, pilot
Poindexter was studying at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the 1980s when a former shuttle commander, Richard Truly, came to talk to the students. From that point on, Poindexter was hooked and made spaceflight his "backburner goal."

Image: Alan G. Poindexter

Coincidentally, Poindexter was in the same Navy squadron as another future shuttle pilot, Kent Rominger, and they served together during Desert Storm in 1991.

Poindexter has been an astronaut for almost 10 years, and is only now making his first spaceflight. He said he's never bored.

"Really, honestly, this is one of the few jobs I've ever had where it's an absolute joy to wake up in the morning and come to work," he said.

Poindexter, 46, a Navy commander and former test pilot, grew up in Coronado, California, but considers Rockville, Maryland, his hometown. He and his wife, Lisa, have two sons, ages 18 and 22.

Leopold Eyharts, space station crew member
A general in the French Air Force, Eyharts will move into the space station for more than two months.

Image: Léopold Eyharts

This will be his second station stint. In 1998, he spent three weeks aboard Russia's Mir. That mission was delayed six months after a cargo ship collided with Mir in 1997.

Eyharts, 50, takes comfort in the fact there is a reliable rescue ship at the space station and he can always flee in an emergency. He talks often about spaceflight with his 9-year-old son and, along with his wife, tries to convince the boy that he'll be safe.

"It's hard for him to understand all the details," he said. "I'm of course expecting that he will be at least a little bit concerned."

Eyharts, who is from the French coastal town of Biarritz near Spain, is a former test and fighter pilot. He became an astronaut in 1990.

Three spacewalkers will divide the duties for three scheduled outings to hook up the Columbus lab and take on other construction tasks at the space station.

Rex Walheim is due to participate in all of the spacewalks. German astronaut Hans Schlegel joins him for the first two EVAs, and Stanley Love will be Walheim's teammate for the third.

Leland Melvin, meanwhile, serves as the prime robotic-arm operator for the extravehicular activities.

Leland Melvin, mission specialist
Melvin is the only astronaut in history with the National Football League on his resume.

As a wide receiver at the University of Richmond, Melvin was picked by the Detroit Lions in 11th round of the 1986 NFL draft but never made a final NFL roster because of hamstring injuries.

Melvin, 43, admits it would have been nice to make the final roster cut and make it to the Super Bowl.

"But I think now with flying in space, going to the cosmos, living in space, working in space with our international partners and our crew, it's one of the most amazing things I could ever think of," he said.

Education was Melvin's fallback plan. He earned chemistry and engineering degrees and began working at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia in 1989.

Image: Leland D. Melvin

He applied to the astronaut program at a friend's urging and was selected in 1998.

The son of retired schoolteachers who still live in Lynchburg, Va., Melvin makes education his priority at NASA and frequently speaks to youngsters. This is his first trip to orbit.

A pianist, he's taking up a recording of Quincy Jones' 1969 Grammy Award-winning "Walking in Space."

He is single.

Rex Walheim, spacewalker
Walheim was thrilled when the lead spacewalker on the last shuttle flight fixed a ripped solar wing at the space station. That meant he would not have to deal with the mess as lead spacewalker for this mission.

Image: Rex J. Walheim

"It was so nice to say, 'That's off our plate, we can stop thinking about that now.'"

Walheim grew up in San Carlos, Calif., and held jobs as a paperboy and as a cook for Kentucky Fried Chicken during his youth. Later, he was a missile warning operations crew commander for the Air Force Space Command, and rose to the rank of colonel.

Walheim, 45, went from being a NASA flight controller to an astronaut in 1996. He flew to the space station in 2002 and performed two spacewalks to hook up a giant girder and railcar. This mission, he will spacewalk three times.

His 83-year-old father, an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II, would love to be on board, too. His dad tells him, "Hey, if they ever need an old B-17 pilot, you know who to call."

Walheim and his wife's two sons, 9 and 11, aren't as aviation-minded. One wants to be a scientist, the other a roller coaster designer.

Stanley Love, spacewalker
Love got a lot of teasing about his last name in middle school, and still does now that he is a doctor. "Merely a Ph.D., not a medical doctor," he's quick to point out.

Image: Stanley G. Love

The 42-year-old astronomer is making his first shuttle flight since becoming an astronaut in 1998. Before joining NASA, he worked on the Cassini spacecraft that traveled to Saturn. He ended up at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California where he focused on optical instrument systems for robotic spacecraft.

"I always thought space exploration was cool," he said.

Love started sending in astronaut applications and, after seven years and three interviews, finally got in. He will make one spacewalk and run the spacecraft's robot arm.

One of Love's passions, besides space, is Japanese animation films.

He is married with two sons, 8 and 11. "We've been very straight with our kids, told them up front that this is a dangerous thing," he said. He compares it to working on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Alaska or doing a tour of duty in Iraq, and believes the rewards justify the risks.

Hans Schlegel, spacewalker
German astronaut Hans Schlegel is proud to be accompanying the Columbus lab to the international space station.

Image: Hans Schlegel

"Bringing Columbus up for a European astronaut, this is first of all an honor. Secondly, it's a duty to really help with your own hands and then, moreover and maybe most important, it's a joy," he said.

Schlegel, 56, a physicist and former paratrooper, flew on a shuttle in 1993 and performed lab experiments. This time, he'll perform two spacewalks to hook up Columbus.

Although 14 years have passed since his first mission, the Columbus lab has waited even longer to fly: more than 22 years.

"Time is a relative thing," said Schlegel, an astronaut since 1988. "You always have to compare to what you get for it, and I think Columbus is the highest developed scientific research lab we bring into space so far."

Schlegel, who is from Aachen, Germany, near Belgium, is one of nine children and has seven of his own ranging in age from 27 to 5, plus a stepdaughter.

This report was supplemented by