Women Set to Take Charge of Space

With the Discovery orbiter scheduled for lift-off Tuesday morning (EDT), the command of the world's spacecraft will soon be in the hands of women for the first time ever.

The countdown to the launch of Discovery is proceeding smoothly but weather concerns may force a delay in schedule, according to a NASA briefing earlier today. The current space shuttle mission, designated STS-120, will be commanded by Pamela A. Melroy (Ret.-Col., USAF), who has piloted two previous shuttle missions, logging in 562 hours in space. Her counterpart, Peggy Whitson (NASA) currently commands the Expedition 16 crew of the International Space Station (ISS), on her second six-month mission in orbit.

NASA said this morning that there is a 60 percent chance that clouds and showers could postpone the launch of Discovery until Wednesday or Thursday. The shuttle flight's main objective will be to deliver and attach a 16-ton Italian-made multiport module called Harmony to the ISS. Still, the buzz around the upcoming flight is centered around the role women are playing in space during this period. The U.S. space agency has even devoted a special section, Women at NASA, to its Web site.

The Associated Press has an article online today that focuses on the two female commanders. The news piece emphasizes that the gender of the two skippers is purely coincidence and not some hare-brained publicity gimmick manufactured by the leaders of the space program.

"To me, that's one of the best parts about it," Melroy told the AP. "This is not something that was planned or orchestrated in any way." She added, "There are enough women in the program that coincidentally this can happen, and that is a wonderful thing. It says a lot about the first 50 years of spaceflight that this is where we're at."

Meanwhile, the returning crew of ISS Expedition 15 overcame a bumpy ride back to Earth aboard their Soyuz spacecraft yesterday, landing some 200 miles short of their planned target in the steppes of Kazakhstan after a rocket misfired, sending the vehicle on a steeper re-entry approach that raised the force of gravity endured to twice the level normally experienced, according to a statement from U.S. and Russian administrators. The homebound Soyuz crew â'' consisting of cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov and Malaysian Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor â'' were all medically evaluated and pronounced in good health.

The planned launch tomorrow of STS-120 will mark the 23rd shuttle mission to the space station. In addition to its commander, the crew consists of: Pilot George D. Zamka (Col. USMC) and Mission Specialists Paolo A. Nespoli (European Space Agency, Italy), Scott E. Parazynski (NASA), Daniel M. Tani (NASA), Douglas H. Wheelock (Col. USA), and Stephanie D. Wilson (NASA). Tani will join ISS Expedition 16 under Whitson's command, replacing ISS Expedition 15 Flight Engineer Clayton C. Anderson.

Two excellent reports on the missions of STS-120 and ISS Expedition 16 can be found today at the BBC Online ("Shuttle Launch Is Key for Europe") and the New York Times ("Amid Concerns, an Ambitious Shuttle Mission" [registration required]).

We wish all the astronauts and cosmonauts, of both genders, happy flying and (more) safe returns.

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