HOUSTON: Nasa on Friday named the first nine astronauts who will fly to space on Boeing and SpaceX vehicles in 2019 — a mix of novices and veterans who are tasked with restoring America’s ability to send humans into orbit.
These pioneering flights to the International Space Station aboard commercially built crew capsules will be the first leaving US soil to put people into orbit since the iconic space shuttle program ended in 2011.
For the past seven years, Nasa astronauts have hitched rides to the orbiting outpost on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft — at a cost of some US$80 million a seat.
“This is a big deal for our country and we want America to know that we are back, that we are flying American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said as he unveiled the crew members in Houston, Texas.
An unmanned Boeing flight test is scheduled for later this year, with the first crew on board in mid-2019, Nasa said.
For SpaceX, a demonstration flight with no passengers is set for November 2018, and the first manned flight set for April 2019.
Those named for the crew test flights for Boeing’s Starliner include Nasa shuttle veterans Eric Boe and Christopher Ferguson, along with Nicole Aunapu Mann, a naval aviator who was named a Nasa astronaut in 2013 and will be making her first flight to space.
“It is going to be a proud moment for America,” Mann said.
US President Donald Trump also praised the news while giving himself a pat on the back: “Nasa, which is making a BIG comeback under the Trump Administration, has just named 9 astronauts for Boeing and SpaceX space flights,” he tweeted.
“We have the greatest facilities in the world and we are now letting the private sector pay to use them,” Trump said. “Exciting things happening.”
“Space Force!” he added, referencing a sixth branch of the military he has called for that would focus on defending US interests.
More astronauts to come
SpaceX’s first crew tests will be manned by shuttle veterans Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley.
After that, the companies move on to actual missions.
Nasa “has contracted six missions, with as many as four astronauts per mission, for each company,” the agency said.
On board Starliner’s first mission will be Nasa veteran Sunita Williams, a retired Navy captain and experienced space shuttle astronaut, and Josh Cassada, a Navy pilot making his first flight to space.
SpaceX’s first crew will include naval aviator Victor Glover, also a novice to spaceflight, and shuttle veteran Michael Hopkins.
More astronauts will be announced to join the crews at a later date, Nasa said.
Nasa awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX in 2014 as part of its commercial crew program, aimed at helping private industry build spaceships to reach low-Earth orbit.
“The goal is to have safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and foster commercial access to other potential low-Earth orbit destinations,” Nasa said.
The US space agency, meanwhile, is working on building rockets and spacecraft that could allow humans to return to the Moon in the coming decade.
Both Boeing and SpaceX are slightly behind schedule when it comes to their crew vehicles.
The first manned flights were initially supposed to take place in 2018.