Today, NASA announced the first astronauts who will fly to the International Space Station from the United States since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. While both companies had recently said they would conduct their first test flights with astronauts on board by the end of this year, those flights are now scheduled for 2019. They were two of the four astronauts selected by NASA in July 2015 to be trained to fly commercial crew missions.
Leading up to the a ceremony at the Johnson Space Center here, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it was a historic moment for the space agency, saying: "We are going to launch American astronauts from American soil". NASA has been paying Russian Federation for flights launched from remote Kazakhstan to the ISS ever since, banking on its Commercial Crew Program to develop a cheaper, reliable and safe American-based alternative. Boeing said it would be ready sometime in the middle of 2019. The astronauts are (L to R): Victor Glover, Robert Behnken, Michael Hopkins, Douglas Hurley, Eric Boe, Sunita Williams, Christopher Ferguson, Josh Cassada, and Nicole Mann. It will mark Mann's first trip to space. He's spent almost 29 days in space.
The vessels, the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing Starliner, have been developed with billions of dollars in funding from NASA, which has contracted SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to make cargo deliveries to the space station since 2012.
The return of crew flights to US soil will end NASA's politically inconvenient reliance on Russian Federation for transporting astronauts to the ISS.
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During the manned tests, the astronauts will be able to use the displays inside the spacecraft, communicate with mission control and practise manual controls during flight.
The agency assigned nine astronauts to crew the first test flight and mission of both Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon. Additional crew members will be assigned by NASA's global partners in the space station at a later date, the agency said.
The space agency selected eight of its finest active astronauts, plus one retired astronaut, from a wide array of backgrounds. Mr. Hopkins logged 166 days aboard the space station in 2014.
"Safely and reliably flying commercial crew missions for NASA remains the highest priority for SpaceX", Benji Reed, SpaceX's director of crew mission management, said in a statement.
NASA is not yet certain exactly when the launches will be.
Boeing's and SpaceX's commercial spacecraft may also open the space station - and more broadly, Earth orbit - to more privately-funded visitors and spaceflight participants from countries that do not have their own domestic crewed spacecraft and rockets.