"For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil", Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, said.
The test flights and missions aboard Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft, slated for as early as April 2019, will "begin a new era in America spaceflight", the USA space 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. "Our commitment has always been to provide NASA and those crews the highest level of mission assurance", he said in the statement. It was a pomp event that could herald a new era in NASA's history.
He said the announcement advances "our great American vision" and strengthens America's leadership in space.
The move marks a significant shift in the USA space program, which will now combine NASA-trained astronauts with private sector space capsules. And Nasa also named the astronauts for those flights as well. "Both partners said they really wanted to have an uncrewed flight test to make sure the integrated rockets, spacecraft and re-entry systems are all working as created to be able to ensure the integrated system is functioning". The first Crew Dragon post-certification mission will be flown by Victor Glover, another rookie astronaut selected in 2013, and Mike Hopkins, who spent 166 days on one station mission. Each astronaut flew on two shuttle missions, including Hurley on the final shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011.
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Mr. Ferguson, who has been involved from the start in the Starliner's development, flew three shuttle missions as a NASA astronaut. Mr. Boe piloted two shuttle flights.
In 2014, NASA signed contracts with Boeing Co. and SpaceX to develop spacecraft and rocket systems to launch from the United States.
Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who has worked with Boeing as it developed its Starliner spacecraft, will fly as a private astronaut. The agency has contracted six missions, with as many as four astronauts per mission, for each company. The crew is assigned to the first flight tests and missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon. She was selected as an astronaut in 1998, and went on spend 322 days aboard the ISS, commanded the space station and performed seven spacewalks. The test flights with crew will take place mid-2019, NASA said.
The space agency's priority is safe, reliable and cost-effective travel to low-Earth orbit and back (at least for now) for the crewed flight tests called Demo-1 by SpaceX and Orbital Flight Test by Boeing.
In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office said that further delays in NASA's so-called "Commercial Crew" program could "disrupt access to" the space station, which would be an enormous embarrassment for NASA after investing about $100 billion to build and operate it. "I'll tell you, being able to launch to the International Space Station from US soil, I can't imagine better", Cassada said. Dragons, meanwhile, will fly on SpaceX's own Falcon 9 rockets. It now looks like SpaceX will be the first to launch humans on its crew Dragon spacecraft, set for April 2019.