ORLANDO, Fla. – After a seven-year hiatus, American astronauts will once again go to space from the U.S.
NASA named the crews for the first four flights planned with commercial partners Boeing and SpaceX at a Friday news conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced eight current NASA astronauts, several of whom have been to space before, as well as bringing a ninth former astronaut who now works for Boeing on stage.
“For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine said.
NASA has had to partner with Russia to launch astronauts to the International Space Station since the space shuttle program ended.
The crew for the test flight of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner will be NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Aunapu Mann flying with Boeing employee and former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson.
Boe, a Miami native, was selected to the astronaut corps in 2000 and flew as a pilot on Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-126 and as part of Space Shuttle Discovery’s final flight, STS-133. Boeing’s Ferguson was pilot on STS-116 on board Space Shuttle Atlantis as well as commander of STS-126 on Space Shuttle Endeavour and the final flight of the space shuttle program, STS-135 on board Atlantis.
For Mann, a former F-18 test pilot with the Marines, though, this will be her first space flight.
“It’s also an opportunity of a lifetime, to be involved in the test and development and then to be there on launch day, and to experience the results of all that hard work,” Mann said. “It’s going to be a proud moment for the team. It’s going to be a proud moment for America. So I’m just grateful to be able to help to usher in this new era in American space flight.”
The crew for the SpaceX Crew Dragon test flight, which may end up being the first to launch, features two NASA astronauts: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Behnken flew on Endeavour twice, STS-123 and STS-130, while Hurley was pilot on Endeavour for STS-127 and Atlantis on STS-135.
“The first flight is something you dream about as a test pilot and you don’t think it’s ever going to happen to you, and it looks like it might,” Hurley said, to which Bridenstine said, “Oh it better.”
Ferguson is expected to fly for Boeing on Starliner’s first mission to the International Space Station as well, but the second NASA crew that will accompany him will be John Cassada on his first space flight and former ISS commander Suni Williams.
Williams has spent 322 days in space as part of two expeditions: 14/15 and 3 2/33.
For SpaceX’s first flight to the ISS, the NASA crew will be Victor Glover on his first space flight and Mike Hopkins, who spent 166 days in space as part of Expedition 37/38.
SpaceX will launch from Kennedy Space Center on board Falcon 9 rockets while Boeing will send its crew capsule up from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets.
Boeing crew-capsule mission delayed after abort engines fail in test
The timetable for the launches was supposed to have been for test flights to take place before the end of 2018, but both companies have faced technical issues that may delay that into 2019. Boeing most recently suffered a problem while testing its emergency abort system and its first test flight won’t be until at least mid-2019.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended NASA pursue a backup plan for getting astronauts to the ISS, as its contract with Russia to send them to the station via Soyuz launches in Kazakhstan ends at the close of 2019.
Three of the chosen astronauts joined the corps in 2013, which was before the commercial partnership was announced. Bridenstine asked some what they thought about the idea that they might have initially been heading to space from Russia, but will now be on board U.S.-based launches.
“I’m sure that there is at least one Russian language instructor out there who thinks that having me fly a U.S. vehicle is not a terrible idea,” Cassada said.
Glover, a former Navy commander and test pilot, was also among the 2013 astronaut class.
“To work and live in space is just a humbling and amazing blessing in and of itself, and now to have the opportunity to work with these great companies on something that is so important to our nation and to NASA,” Glover said. “This is the stuff of dreams.”
When test flights do launch, Boeing’s flight is dubbed Orbital Flight Test followed by Crew Flight Test. SpaceX’s first flight is dubbed Demonstration Mission 1 followed by Demonstration Mission 2.
NASA awaits the completion of both companies’ test flights before certifying either safe for use to return astronauts on low-Earth-orbit missions.
When approved, each company is slated for six missions to the space station between 2019 and 2024, a total of 12 missions between the two companies.
Plans will be for NASA to send four astronauts up to the station on each mission, one more than the current three-person crews.
Also in attendance for the announcement was Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, who was part of the first crewed flight to the space station.
“Announcing the crews today is an important milestone in our journey of exploration,” Cabana said. “The only way I think it could be better is if I was on one of those assigned crews.”
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