Bowen replaces Kopra on Discovery crew; launch still on for Feb. 24 (UPDATED)

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 01:22 PM, 01/19/11: Bowen replaces Kopra on Discovery crew
  • Updated at 05:50 PM, 01/19/11: Adding quotes and details from NASA news briefing
CBS News

Less than six weeks before launch, astronaut Timothy Kopra, injured in a bicycle accident Saturday, was removed from the crew of the shuttle Discovery Wednesday and replaced by astronaut Stephen Bowen, a veteran spacewalker who flew aboard the shuttle Atlantis last May. Despite the last-minute crew change, NASA officials say Bowen should be able to complete a hurried round of refresher training in time for blastoff around Feb. 24 as planned.

"As anybody would be this close to flight, he's disappointed, for sure," chief astronaut Peggy Whitson told reporters Wednesday, describing Kopra's reaction. "His crew made very tight bonds and so they are all very supportive of Tim. ... I think Steve will fit in well with this crew. He obviously doesn't have time to make a huge impact, he's going to just try to fill Tim's shoes as part of his role on the mission."

Astronaut Timothy Kopra, shown here aboard the shuttle Endeavour in 2009, was injured in a bicycle accident Saturday. (Photo: NASA)
Kopra was named to the all-veteran crew of shuttle mission STS-133 in September 2009, along with commander Steven Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe, Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt and Alvin Drew. Kopra was assigned two key roles, serving as the flight engineer during launch and re-entry and the lead spacewalker for a pair of excursions with Drew.

Bowen, who completed two spacewalks last May during the most recent shuttle mission, is a Naval Academy graduate, a veteran submariner and father of three with two previous shuttle flights to his credit. He will replace Kopra for the two spacewalks planned for Discovery's fight.

"What we ended up doing in order to make it fit in the timeframe and not have to slip the launch or lose mission objectives is we decided to replace Tim's EVA (spacewalk) responsibilities with Steve Bowen," Whitson said.

"He's a very experienced EVA-er, five previous spacewalks and very capable in terms of qualifications in (NASA's spacesuit). We felt with a very few additional (training) runs, he could pick up the timeline Tim and Al had worked out together previously and be able to pull them off with only an additional two runs in the NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory training pool) for each of those two activities."

Kopra also served as Discovery's flight engineer, playing a critical role during ascent and entry. The flight engineer sits directly behind the shuttle commander and pilot, helping them monitor critical instruments and double-checking procedures, both for normal ascents and entries as well as emergency aborts.

Whitson said there was not enough time to train Bowen for two spacewalks and flight engineer duties and still make the next shuttle launch window. Instead, Drew will serve as flight engineer during ascent and Stott will take over for entry.

"This will require additional training on their part as well, but in the end we were able to get there with less than 45 technical hours per week of training," Whitson said. "We think it's a good plan, we think we've covered all the mission objectives with this training plan in the timeframe that we have."

Astronaut Stephen Bowen, shown aboard the shuttle Atlantis during the most recent shuttle flight last May, will replace Timothy Kopra aboard Discovery. (Photo: NASA)
Citing medical privacy issues, NASA officials will not discuss the extent of Kopra's injuries or provide details on what happened other than to say he was injured Saturday in a bicycle mishap near his home in Houston. Multiple sources have said he broke his hip, but Kopra has not yet made any public comment.

With only two and possibly three shuttle missions remaining before the fleet is retired, the bike accident marked a difficult personal setback for Kopra. In years past, an astronaut who had to miss a flight for medical reasons could look forward to being worked back into the crew rotation for launch on a future flight.

But there are no available seats on the remaining shuttle flights. Whitson said NASA is holding open the possibility of returning Kopra to Discovery's crew if the mission encounters a major delay, giving the astronaut time to recover, but that appears to be a long shot.

She said Kopra, who is recovering at home, plans to help his crew as much as possible during training and to be ready if he gets another chance. If Discovery stays on schedule, Kopra presumably would be available for launch to the space station aboard a future Russian Soyuz rocket, although station crews for the next few years are already set.

"When I went to his house to talk about this and our actions, his cat has a little hoop around her head to keep her from licking herself," Whitson said. "So he said the cat's in the penalty box and so am I. For getting hurt before the flight."

Astronauts with flight assignments have been replaced in the past for a variety of reasons, but NASA has never had to replace a shuttle crew member this close to launch.

Astronaut David Griggs, scheduled to serve as pilot of shuttle mission STS-33, was replaced after he was killed June 17, 1989, flying a vintage aircraft. Two shuttle commanders -- David Walker and Robert "Hoot" Gibson -- were removed from flights in 1990 for disciplinary reasons after they violated NASA flight rules in unrelated incidents.

Jeff Ashby was replaced as the pilot of STS-85 in 1997 because of a family illness and Mark Lee was replaced on the STS-98 crew in 2000 for undisclosed reasons.

Gus Loria and Carlos Noriega also were replaced in 2002 and 2004 respectively because of undisclosed medical issues and Karen Nyberg was replaced on the crew of STS-132 in 2009 because of a temporary medical condition.

The same day NASA announced Nyberg's replacement -- Aug. 11, 2009 -- the agency named the crew for shuttle mission STS-134, the flight after Discovery's upcoming mission. Just last week, NASA named a backup commander to train in place of astronaut Mark Kelly, the STS-134 commander. Kelly's wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was critically wounded in a Tucson shooting spree Jan. 8 and it's not yet known if he will be able to carry out his assignment aboard Endeavour, scheduled for launch April 19.

Astronaut Timothy Kopra aboard the International Space Station in 2009. (Photo: NASA)
NASA's most famous crew replacement occurred in 1970 when Ken Mattingly, command module pilot for the Apollo 13 moon mission, was exposed to measles. He was replaced by Jack Swigert just three days before launch.

NASA trained backup crews for Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, as well as the first four shuttle missions, which were launched with two-man crews. But after that, with crews of six or seven astronauts, it was no longer practical to train backup shuttle crews and the practice came to an end.

Kopra, married and the father of two children, is a retired Army helicopter pilot who served in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He attended U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and was selected to join NASA's astronaut corps in 2000.

Kopra has flown in space once, blasting off aboard Endeavour July 15, 2009, and serving three months aboard the International Space Station before returning to Earth with the crew of the shuttle Discovery on Sept. 11, 2009. During his stay aboard the station, Kopra completed a five-hour two-minute spacewalk.

When the STS-133 crew was named in 2009, Discovery's flight was the shuttle program's final planned mission, following a post-Columbia Bush administration directive to finish the space station and retire the shuttle fleet by the end of fiscal year 2010.

That deadline was relaxed somewhat when Congress, worried about the possibility of schedule pressure on flight safety, promised an additional $600 million in funding to cover shuttle operations through the end of calendar year 2010. NASA managers later said internal cost-savings initiatives would allow shuttle operations to continue into early 2011 if necessary.

As it turned out, problems with a $2 billion particle physics experiment scheduled for launch aboard Endeavour during what was to have been the next-to-last fight in July 2010 forced NASA to revise the launch schedule.

Because of work to replace the powerful magnet in the particle physics experiment, Endeavour's flight slipped behind Discovery's, first moving to late November and eventually to late February. Discovery's flight, in turn, was delayed from mid September to Nov. 1, in part to accommodate work to modify a cargo transport module for permanent attachment to the space station.

After delays due to technical problems and bad weather, a launch attempt Nov. 5 was called off because of a gaseous hydrogen leak in an external tank vent line. That problem was resolved, but work to fix cracks in the ship's tank delayed ultimately delayed Discovery's launch to Feb. 24 and Endeavour's to April 19.

NASA hopes to close out the shuttle program with a final flight of the shuttle Atlantis in late June.