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Female Astronauts Discuss Upcoming US Missions


In October, NASA, the U.S. Space Agency, plans major additions to the International Space Station (ISS) in two separate missions, both of which will be under the command of female astronauts. The two women who will lead the missions spoke with reporters from their training site at the Johnson Space Center in Houston Thursday. VOA's Greg Flakus has this report from Houston.

Astronauts Peggy Whitson and Pam Melroy have been in space before and, in fact, both were involved in a previous mission to enhance the capabilities of the international space station in 2002. In October, Whitson will lift off aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that will take her to the space station, where she will be in command of the Expedition 16 crew until she returns to earth in April of next year.

Melroy will command the STS-120 NASA Space Shuttle mission, which is targeted for launch on October 20. It will be a 13-day mission with the prime objective of delivering and installing a pressurized nodule known as Node 2 on the international space station. It will serve as a passageway to science labs on the complex.

Sitting side by side at the Johnson Space Center, both Whitson and Melroy expressed delight at being able to work together again in space.

WHITSON: "Pam and I had an opportunity to fly together the last time I was in space, STS-112 arrived and she was the pilot on board. So it will be fun to kind of rejoin again on orbit, this time with slightly different roles.

MELROY: "I feel the same way Peggy does. I think it really helps us a lot that we are familiar with what our shared expectations are and so forth and so it has just been really easy preparing for this mission together."

Pam Melroy says that while there is joy in going into space and carrying out missions with other trusted professionals, there is also a sense of firm resolution to carry out a demanding set of tasks.

"It is a complicated mission," she said. "It is not just the delivery of Harmony, which is Node TWO, the centerpiece that will join all the international laboratories, we are also going to be relocating the P-SIX solar array, which is currently on top of the Z-ONE Truss and we will be moving it a long distance out, all the way to the end of the port truss. So, essentially, we have two large pieces of the station that we are doing assembly operations with and that is kind of unusual."

Once the Space Shuttle departs, the rest of the assembly job will fall on Whitson and her crew at the space station.

"Pam's crew is going to temporarily store Harmony on the side of Node-ONE and we actually have to move it from the side up forward," she added.

She says performing all the necessary tasks will involve robotic maneuvers as well as space walks or EVAs, extra-vehicular activity, in NASA parlance.

Properly installing the new module and other procedures to be carried out by the space station crew will allow future shuttle missions to successfully dock with the orbiting complex.

Asked how they plan to commemorate this first-time event of two female astronauts commanding missions in space at the same time, Pam Melroy said she looks forward to greeting her friend through the port after the shuttle docks.

"I confess I am really looking forward to that first handshake across the hatch. That will be all the commemoration I need is a picture of that," she said.

Pam Melroy retired from the U.S. Air Force with the rank of colonel in February. She piloted two previous shuttle missions and has logged over 562 hours in space. Peggy Whitson, who has a doctorate degree in biochemistry, went to the international space station on one previous mission, aboard STS-111 in June, 2002. She spent six months in orbit and carried out 21 investigations in human life sciences and microgravity science while there.