NASA has named the astronauts chosen to fly on commercial spacecraft made by Boeing and SpaceX to and from the International Space Station, the research laboratory that orbits around Earth.
Their voyages are scheduled to begin next year, and they would be the first American astronauts to launch from U.S. soil since 2011. NASA retired its space shuttle fleet that year, and started sending astronauts to the International Space Station aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost of $81 million (U.S.) per seat.
“What an exciting and amazing day,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said at the announcement at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
But a Government Accountability Office report published last month raised alarm bells that the project is running behind schedule, and could miss key deadlines. The delays could even result in a gap in U.S. access to the space station, because NASA has contracted for seats on Soyuz only through November 2019, the report found.
Friday, NASA said that if unmanned test flights go smoothly, the group of nine astronauts will fly before then, on the first test flight and mission of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. NASA worked closely with the companies to engineer both spacecraft.
“The opportunity to fly in a new vehicle is any test pilot and astronaut’s dream,” Mike Hopkins, an Air Force colonel who will fly aboard the Crew Dragon on its first mission, wrote on Twitter.
Hopkins had previously spent 166 days on the International Space Station, and conducted two spacewalks. He will be joined by Victor Glover, a Navy commander who will be making his first trip into space.
The test flight astronauts on the Crew Dragon, both of whom joined NASA in 2000, will be Col. Bob Behnken of the Air Force and Doug Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel. The Crew Dragon will launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The uncrewed test is planned for November; the test flight with crew aboard is set for April 2019.
The astronauts assigned to the Starliner’s first mission are Sunita Williams, who retired as a Navy captain, and Cmdr. Josh Cassada of the Navy, who will be making his first voyage into space.
Williams has spent 322 days aboard the International Space Station since becoming an astronaut in 1998. While she was there in 2007, she completed the Boston Marathon — on a treadmill — in 4 hours 24 minutes, marking the first time an entrant had finished the race from orbit.