A San Diego man has been named backup shuttle commander on the final scheduled flight of the NASA space shuttle program.
Veteran shuttle commander Rick Sturckow, who was raised in Lakeside and graduated from Grossmont High School, will command the Endeavour, if they need to replace Capt. Mark Kelly, the astronaut-husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson last weekend.
Kelly was named commander in 2009 and has been in training for 17 months. Being chosen to lead the last shuttle flight is a big honor, NASA spokesman Michael Curie said. However, Kelly's wife, Gabrielle Giffords, remains in critical condition in a Tucson hospital.
Kelly said in a statement released by NASA that he recommended to the space agency that they "take steps now to prepare to complete the mission in my absence if necessary."
"I am very hopeful that I will be in a position to rejoin my (Endeavour) crew members to finish our training," Kelly said in the statement.
As far as NASA is concerned, "Mark is still the commander," chief astronaut Peggy Whitson said. "He is facing many uncertainties now as he supports Gabrielle, and our goal is to allow him to keep his undistracted attention on his family while allowing preparations for the mission to progress."
Curie said NASA hasn't yet determined when exactly it needs to make a decision on whether Kelly, a three-time shuttle flier, will be able to command the mission. But he said naming a backup commander buys some time.
Space shuttle crews usually spend well more than a year training for the intricate duties of a particular mission. Endeavour's 14-day mission would resupply the space station and install a $1.5 billion physics experiment.
The shooting of Giffords put NASA in an uncomfortable position about what to do with the April flight, said American University professor Howard McCurdy, who has written several books about the space program. Removing Kelly from a prestigious job would look like punishing him because of the assassination attempt, but he will be busy helping his wife recover and could be distracted if he flies.
He called Thursday's move "a realistic, carefully thought out compromise."
Marine Col. Frederick "Rick" Sturckow grew up on a farm in Lakeside. Sturckow graduated from Grossmont in 1978 and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Cal Polytechnic in 1984. Ten years later in 1994, He was selected to join NASA after logging nearly 5,000 flight hours in 50 different aircraft.
If Sturckow leads the mission on April 19, this would be his fifth mission to space, according to his NASA bio, and his second mission aboard the Endeavour.