Thursday, February 03, 2011

Mission Commander Kelly To Announce Flight Status Friday

The astronaut husband of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded in the Tucson shooting rampage last month, is expected to announce a decision Friday on whether he will remain commander of NASA's penultimate shuttle mission, scheduled for launch in mid-April.

Veteran shuttle pilot and mission commander Mark Kelly has been by his wife's side since Giffords was shot in the head during a Jan. 8 assassination attempt that killed six and wounded a dozen others outside a Tucson grocery store.

NASA subsequently assigned astronaut Rick Sturckow to serve as a backup so that the crew of the International Space Station assembly and outfitting mission could continue training in Kelly's absence.

Kelly delivered the closing prayer Friday at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., and said his wife continues to improve daily.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, spoke with Kelly at the event, also attended by President Obama.

"He's going to make his announcement tomorrow. I don't know what that's going to be. It is a tough decision for him, but I think it's reasonable to expect that he will go on to command this mission in April because I think Gabby is significantly improving every day," Nelson told ABC News.

"The question is, is she improving enough so that he does not need to be by her side everyday in order for her to continue the improvement? While he's training, she is right there in Houston. He'll still be able to see her," Nelson said.

"Obviously, he would not see her while he goes into quarantine or when he is actually on the mission. But that's only a choice for him and for the leaders of NASA to make. I don't know what that decision is, but that would be my advice from this perspective. If we hear that in fact she is improving as she is, then I think that would be a reasonable choice on his part."

Kelly had been in training to command the STS-134 mission since August 2009. The primary aim of the mission, which is targeted to launch on April 19, is to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a large particle physics experiment, to the outpost.

His twin brother, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, currently is serving as commander of the International Space Station and is slated to return to Earth in March.

NASA intends to launch three more shuttle missions prior to fleet retirement. The first, STS-133, is set for launch Feb. 24. The final flight, STS-135, is slated to launch June 28.

ABOUT THE IMAGE: Click to enlarge the NASA image, which shows veteran shuttle pilot and mission commander Mark Kelly arriving at Kennedy Space Center in a T-38 training jet. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

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