Even though the crew members for Discovery's STS-131 mission to the International Space Station will be taking one of the shuttle fleet's last flights, they'll also be recording a couple of firsts.
During the shuttle's linked operations with the station, four women will be together in orbit for the first time. Three female visitors are riding up on the shuttle, and one — NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson should be settling into a months-long tour of duty on the station after her own arrival aboard a Russian Soyuz craft.
The flight will also mark the first time two Japanese astronauts are in space at the same time. Naoki Yamazaki, Japan's second female spaceflier, will meet up with Soichi Noguchi, who has been aboard the station since December. "We're really looking forward to it," Noguchi said.
The astronauts' main tasks are to deliver about eight tons of cargo to the space station, including a replacement gyroscope and ammonia coolant tank. Those two bulky pieces of equipment are to be installed during a series of three spacewalks.
Here are mini-profiles of the seven astronauts on Discovery's crew:
Commander Alan Poindexter
Born: Nov. 5, 1961, in Pasadena, Calif.
Personal: Married with two children
Poindexter was a naval aviator during the first Persian Gulf War and later became a Navy test pilot. He has flown more than 3,500 hours in more than 30 types of aircraft, logging more than 450 carrier landings. He became an astronaut in 1998 and took his first spaceflight a full decade later, as pilot aboard the shuttle Atlantis during a trip to the space station.
This will be his first and likely last chance to command a space shuttle mission. "My position as commander is one of a management position, so to speak, a leadership position," Poindexter said in a NASA interview. "So I will be spending a lot of my time helping others out where I can and trying to maintain the big picture."
Pilot James P. Dutton Jr.
Born: November 1968 in Eugene, Ore.
Personal: Married with four sons
Dutton has been flying since his days at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and put in more than 100 combat hours over northern Iraq in the 1995-98 time frame. He then became a test pilot, and was selected to become an astronaut in 2004. This is his first spaceflight.
"What I’m most looking forward to is looking out into space, seeing the sun rise and set, looking back at the earth and just getting that new perspective that I’ve never seen," Dutton said. "From a professional standpoint I think that operating a space vehicle is going to be really exciting to do."
Spacewalker Clayton Anderson
Born: Feb. 23, 1959 in Omaha, Neb.
Personal: Married with two children
After earning degrees in physics and aerospace engineering, Anderson went to work at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a mission planner. He joined the astronaut corps in 1998 and spent a five-month tour of duty on the International Space Station in 2007. During that time he performed three spacewalks, and he'll participate in three spacewalks during Discovery's mission.
Anderson and fellow spacewalker Rick Mastracchio will replace a gyroscope on the station and a bulky ammonia tank. They'll also retrieve experiments and equipment from the station's exterior. "The big activity of transferring, of bringing all that stuff on and taking all the stuff off — it may sound very simple but it has to be quite uniquely choreographed," he said in his NASA interview.
Spacewalker Rick Mastracchio
Born: Feb. 11, 1960 in Waterbury, Conn.
Mastracchio was trained as an engineer and started working at Johnson Space Center in 1987 — at first as a contractor, and later as a NASA engineer and flight controller. Mastracchio became an astronaut in 1996 and flew on shuttle missions to the space station in 2000 and 2007. Leading up to Discovery's STS-131 mission, he has logged 588 hours in space and three spacewalks. With Discovery's launch, he will have flown on each of the three existing shuttles.
"I’ve got lots of memories of my previous two missions obviously, and hopefully I’ll make more memories on this mission. I’m sure I will," he said. "But again, working on something for 22 years, actually I’ve got a lot of memories of working on the program as an engineer. I’ve got more memories of working on the program as an engineer than I do as flying on the space shuttle as an astronaut."
Mission specialist Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger
Born: May 2, 1975 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Personal: Married with one child
Metcalf-Lindenburger taught earth science and astronomy for five years at Hudson's Bay High School in Vancouver, Wash. She was selected to become an educator-astronaut in 2004, and has spent the years since then in training and on technical assignments. She has completed more than 10 marathons, including the Boston Marathon in 2004. Discovery's mission is her first spaceflight.
She has a colorful story about her path to the astronaut corps: "When I was teaching astronomy at high school, one of my students said, 'How do you go to the bathroom in space?' ... I said, 'Well, I don’t know exactly what the toilet looks like, but I’ll look it up.' I looked it up that night, and at the same time they had posted that educators could become astronauts. So, I had the answer to my student’s question, but I also got an answer to a dream that I had for a long time, and so I applied for the astronaut position."
Mission specialist Stephanie Wilson
Born: 1966 in Boston
Wilson was trained as an aerospace engineer and worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before becoming an astronaut in 1996. Her flight to the International Space Station in 2006 made her the second African-American woman to go into space (after Mae Jemison, who flew in 1992). A year later, she took her second space shuttle flight, helping to deliver the Harmony connecting node to the space station.
"For this flight, my key responsibilities are in the areas of robotics," she said. "I will be managing the plan that transfers our launch vehicle into an orbiting vehicle, and the reconfiguration for entry. I’ll also be setting up the computer network and making sure that that runs properly during the mission."
Japanese mission specialist Naoko Yamazaki
Born: 1970 in Matsudo, Japan
Personal: Married with one child
Yamazaki went to work for Japan's space agency in 1996 and was involved in the development of Japan's Kibo orbital laboratory, which is now attached to the space station. She was certified as an astronaut in 2001 and completed training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in 2004. Her initial technical assignment was in the astronaut office's robotics branch.
She'll be flying into space for the first time on Discovery, as the mission's load master. "It is like orchestrating all the transfer activities, more than 120 hours," she explained, "and also I will operate the space shuttle robotic arm to inspect the space shuttle, our thermal tiles, which may have damaged from ascent. Also, Stephanie and I will operate the station robotic arm to berth and unberth the Multi Purpose Logistics Module from the International Space Station."
Yamazaki said her meeting with Noguchi will represent "a very big step for Japan."
"We are looking forward to working with each other, and we are also looking forward to sharing some Japanese culture among the crew members," she said.