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NASA's next woman commander

NASA file
A "fish-eye" lens captures astronaut Pamela Melroy at the pilot's station on the
forward flight deck of the space shuttle Atlantis during a mission in October 2002.


Pamela Melroy is due to become the second woman to command a NASA space mission, based on today's announcement of the crew for the STS-120 mission.

STS-120 is to deliver and install a key piece of the international space station: Node 2, a connecting module that will allow for the attachment of European and Japanese laboratories during later flights. The hardware was built for NASA by an Italian-led consortium, in exchange for the space shuttle's delivery of the European Space Agency's Columbus lab.

Melroy, an Air Force colonel, is following in the footsteps of Eileen Collins, who became NASA's first female commander in 1999 when she helmed the shuttle Columbia's mission to deploy the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Collins also commanded last year's "return to flight" mission, but left the astronaut corps in May.

Melroy's path to the shuttle's left-hand seat included stints in the right-hand seat in 2000 and 2002 as shuttle pilot - essentially equivalent to the co-pilot of an airplane. Marine Col. George Zamka, a first-time shuttle flier, will serve as Melroy's pilot. Other crew members include veteran spacewalker Scott Parazynski and three other space rookies: Army Col. Douglas Wheelock, Navy Capt. Michael Foreman and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli.

Parazynski's presence clears up a bit of a mystery: Last month, NASA had said Parazynski was being taken off one mission for reassignment to another one, and I speculated that the unnamed mission might involve a visit to the Hubble Space Telescope. Today's announcement proves me wrong.

Although the official announcement doesn't specify exactly when STS-120 will fly, NASASpaceFlight.com's manifest lists the mission in August 2007, with Atlantis designated as the orbiter. The Hubble servicing mission is penciled in for April 2008 on Discovery.