The anguish over the Tucson shootings has been felt across the country, and keenly at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. You'll recall that Gabrielle Giffords' husband, Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, is a NASA astronaut.
It so happens he's also the commander of STS-134, the space shuttle Endeavour, scheduled for launch on the evening of April 19 — and currently listed as the very last flight in the space shuttle program. (Congress ordered an extra flight, STS-135, in a bill late last year, but did not allocate money for it.)
It would be the highest-profile assignment of Capt. Kelly's career, but obviously it's more important at the moment for him to be at his wife's side.
So — apparently at his suggestion — NASA has named astronaut Rick Sturckow as backup commander for the mission. He will take Kelly's place for now in leading training for the rest of Endeavour's crew. He will not fly unless Kelly simply cannot make it.
"I recommended to my management that we take steps now to prepare to complete the mission in my absence, if necessary," Kelly said in a statement released by NASA. "I am very hopeful that I will be in a position to rejoin my STS-134 crew members to finish our training."
"Mark is still the commander of STS-134," said Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office. "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. Designating a backup allows the crew and support team to continue training, and enables Mark to focus on his wife's care."
Endeavour is to deliver final components to the International Space Station — where Mark's twin brother Scott happens to be orbiting on a six-month mission. If not for a delay in launching the flight preceding it (the shuttle Discovery was supposed to have launched in November but won't go until Feb. 24 at the earliest), Mark and Scott might have wound up in space together at the same time.
Mark has a Twitter account; this afternoon he posted, "Thanks for all of the messages of support. I have some great followers. GG has been improving each day." (NASA photo: Mark Kelly during training in February 2010.)