NASA has released the names of the first nine US astronauts for the first four manned, commercial space flights. A mixture of ex-Space Shuttle crews and test pilots, the nine men and women will be the first to ride on an American-made and flagged spacecraft since the Shuttle was retired in 2011, and will act as crew on the first two test flights and the first two mission flights to the International Space Station (!SS).
The space agency's August 3 announcement is the latest step in the United States' return to a manned spaceflight program. Since the last Space Shuttle mission, STS-135, landed at the Kennedy Space Center on March 9, 2011, NASA has been completely dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry crews to the ISS. To return manned launches to American territory, the US government has encouraged private firms to develop and operate complete space launch systems to send astronauts and cargo to the space station and return them to Earth.
Currently, two companies are slated to send manned spacecraft to the ISS – Boeing and SpaceX – though other firms will follow after the first tranche of flights. Both the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon are reusable space capsules capable of carrying seven astronauts plus cargo into low-Earth orbit. However, the Starline will launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, while the Dragon will lift of from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida using a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster.
NASA has named the four new US astronaut crews as follows:
Starliner Test Flight
- Colonel Eric Boe: Former US Air Force fighter pilot before joining NASA in 2000. He was a pilot on the Shuttle Endeavour's STS-126 mission and Discovery on its final mission, STS-133.
- Captain Christopher Ferguson: A retired US Navy pilot and Commander of the final Shuttle mission. He retired from NASA in 2011 to join Boeing's Starliner program.
- Lieutenant Colonel Nicole Aunapu Mann: A former US Marine Corps F/A-18 test pilot with over 2,500 flight hours on 25 aircraft. She joined the astronaut corps in 2013 and is still a rookie awaiting her first spaceflight.
Crew Dragon Test Flight
- Colonel Robert Behnken: Former US Air Force and flight test engineer with a doctorate in engineering. He joined NASA in 2000 and flew two Shuttle missions aboard Endeavour. He has also performed six spacewalks totaling over 37 hours.
- Colonel Douglas Hurley: US Marine Corps test pilot who became an astronaut in 2000. He piloted Endeavour and Atlantis on the final Shuttle mission.
Starliner First Mission
- Josh Cassada: Former US Navy Commander and test pilot with 3,500 hours in the air on over 40 aircraft. He has been an astronaut since 2013 and is still a rookie.
- Captain Sunita Williams: Former US Navy test pilot, who was selected for the astronaut corps in 1998. She has made two tours of the ISS where she clocked up 322 days and performed seven spacewalks.
Crew Dragon First Mission
- Victor Glover: Former US Navy Commander with over 3,000 hours in 40 aircraft as a test pilot. He has 400 carrier landings and 24 combat missions to his credit and joined NASA in 2013. He is still a rookie.
- Colonel Michael Hopkins: US Air Force flight engineer who has been an astronaut since 2009. He has made one visit to the ISS for 166 days, when he conducted two spacewalks.
The announcement of the crews comes shortly after a US government assessment of the manned commercial spaceflight project caused NASA to postpone the first astronaut flights until 2019. Management concerns have been raised about SpaceX after a catastrophic launch pad explosion in 2016, and the Starliner suffered a propellant leak in its abort engines due to a faulty valve earlier this year.
NASA says that once the two spacecraft have completed their manned test flights, they will be cleared for six regularly scheduled missions to the ISS with four astronauts each. This will boost the regular crew of the station to seven – much closer to its original design crew size of eight. The number of astronauts allowed on the ISS is restricted by the number of crew capsules berthed at any time, which act as both ferry craft and lifeboats in the event of an emergency.
"The men and women we assign to these first flights are at the forefront of this exciting new time for human spaceflight," said Mark Geyer, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "It will be thrilling to see our astronauts lift off from American soil, and we can't wait to see them aboard the International Space Station."
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