NASA names astronauts for first commercial space flights

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NASA has named the astronauts who will fly the first commercial capsules into orbit next year.

The nine astronauts, most with previous experience in orbit, will ride the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing Starliner capsules to the International Space Station.

The commercial flights will mark the return of crew launches to the US, which has not seen humans lift off for space since the end of the iconic space shuttle program seven years ago.

“For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” said

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who made the introductions at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas on Friday.

“This is a big deal for our country and we want America to know that we are back,” he said.

US astronauts have been relying on Russian capsules to travel to the space station, with each seat costing NASA as much as $82 million (€71 million).

Read more: Commercial space industry shows promise in the US

Mix of novices, veterans

SpaceX and Boeing are planning a test flight of their capsules by the end of this year or early 2019.

Boeing’s first Starliner crew will include former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded the last shuttle flight in 2011. He is now a Boeing employee.

Joining Ferguson on the maiden flight will be Eric Boe, a former shuttle pilot, and Nicole Aunapu Mann, who will make her first trip into space.

“As a test pilot, it doesn’t get any better than this,” said Mann, a Naval aviator.

SpaceX’s first crew tests on the Dragon capsule will be helmed by shuttle veterans Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley.

The first crewed flights will only spend a short period of time in orbit before coming back to Earth. After that, the companies will move on to actual long-duration missions.

On board Starliner’s first extended mission will be NASA veteran Sunita Williams, a retired Navy captain and one of the most experienced American astronauts in history, and Josh Cassada, a Navy pilot making his first flight to space.

SpaceX’s crew for the long-duration mission will include naval aviator Victor Glover, also a novice to spaceflight, and shuttle veteran Michael Hopkins.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell took a photo of the astronauts before assuring them: “We won’t let you down.”

Repeated delays

Boeing’s Starliner will soar on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rockets. Dragons, meanwhile, will fly on SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 rockets.

NASA paid seed money to SpaceX and Boeing to incentivize them to develop the crew capsules, picking up where the shuttle program left off. It has also been paying billions for cargo deliveries to the space station by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. The cargo missions started in 2012.

The crew missions have been repeatedly delayed because of technical and safety issues. The first manned flights were initially supposed to take place in 2018.

ap/cmk (AP, AFP)

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