On Friday, NASA, along with commercial partners Boeing and SpaceX, named the first commercial crew astronauts selected to fly aboard commercial spacecraft. These nine American astronauts will launch on the first missions from American soil in American spacecraft since the Shuttle program ended in 2011.
Astronauts Sunita Williams, Eric Boe, Robert Behnken, and Doug Hurley were previously named for commercial spaceflight by the agency in 2015. Four new astronaut crew mates – Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada, Victor Glover, and Michael Hopkins – learned about their commercial crew assignments. Boeing astronaut, and retired NASA astronaut, Chris Ferguson joins the eight commercial crew astronauts as the first citizen astronaut.
NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, was on hand at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to announce the nine new commercial crew astronauts.
“Because of the hard work of the folks that are here, and so many others, and an administration that is absolutely committed to space exploration, the health of NASA and our space exploration program is as strong as its ever been and it’s getting stronger every day.” said Bridenstine.
NASA’s commercial crew program is part of the greater effort to commercialize the activities in low Earth orbit, utilizing the International Space Station (ISS), where NASA astronauts have been conducting science and research along with international space agency partners. Companies like Boeing and SpaceX give the agency the freedom to focus on its deep space human exploration missions and planetary science goals.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon were selected by NASA for crew transport to the ISS. “Through the Commercial Crew program, our astronauts and engineers have been working hand in hand with Boeing and SpaceX companies to develop these first commercial crew vehicles capable of carrying humans into space.” said Mark Geyer, the new Director of NASA Johnson Space Center.
Of the four crews named, two will launch test flight missions and two crews will launch to the International Space Station where they will live and work in space before returning to Earth in the crew vehicles.
“I’ve been waiting for this day.” said Sunita Williams, who was one of the four astronauts that has been working with both commercial partners for the last three years.
“I actually feel relieved because focusing on two spacecrafts is really tough. It’s hard to keep everything straight and there are pros and cons to each vehicle. So now, focusing on one spacecraft is going to be a little bit of a relief, but now the pedal hits the metal and it’s going to go a lot faster than before.”
Williams and crew mate, Josh Cassada will fly the second flight, and first mission, of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner vehicle. Preceding them in flight will be Chris Ferguson, Nicole Mann, and Eric Boe who will conduct the vehicle’s test flight.
For SpaceX, the Crew Dragon test flight astronauts are spaceflight veterans, Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley. The first mission astronauts for SpaceX Crew Dragon include astronaut Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins.
When asked about his assignment, Glover told Cosmic Chicago, “One of the interesting things about SpaceX, when you walk through the door, there is a palpable energy- like being in Teague auditorium earlier today. You can just feel something. The folks there are laser focused on what they do, they enjoy it, they are by and large younger than us, but they are smart and dedicated. They work to get the job done, and they love what they do.”
More astronaut crew members will be assigned to flight missions in the future, and both mission crews expressed the importance of adding them as soon as possible in order to reduce training challenges for both the crew and training teams. With delays pushing the test flights for both companies back until at least 2019, there is still time.
“This is just the beginning of the missions that this country is embarking upon.”, says Geyer, “We are ready to assign the crews for the first flights, but the launch is only the beginning.”
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