Sunita Williams among nine astronauts for first space flights on commercial spacecraft

NASA Spruces Up Astronauts Digs Ahead of Commercial Launches

NASA announced Friday a mix of spaceflight veterans and rookie astronauts who will launch on the first flights of new Boeing and SpaceX commercial spaceships starting as soon as next spring, several months later than previously scheduled.

American astronauts haven't launched from the US since 2011, and the first commercial company to make that happen first will undoubtedly receive accolades.

"What an exciting and incredible day", Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, said at the announcement at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The race to get astronauts to the space station first is real; a US flag that flew on the first space shuttle flight in 1981 and the last shuttle flight in 2011, awaits the victor.

In addition to the above, two other astronauts-Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins- will fly on the first operational mission of SpaceX's crewed Dragon.

Chris Ferguson, who led the final space shuttle mission, will make his fourth spaceflight when he and NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Mann take the new Boeing [NYSE: BA] CST-100 Starliner commercial crew spacecraft to the International Space Station.

The SpaceX crewed test flight, now scheduled for April 2019, will be flown by NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley.

"NASA is empowering private industry to gain solid footing in low-Earth orbit, which will allow NASA to explore new frontiers in deep space", said Jon Cowart, acting deputy manager for the Commercial Crew Program's Mission Management and Integration office at the Kennedy Space Center. The group includes eight current NASA astronauts and one Boeing astronaut.

After the ending of space shuttle program in 2011, NASA astronauts were travelling to the ISS aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. SpaceX is trying to fix design issues with gas vessels and cracks in its engine turbines, and it's working to ensure that its rocket fueling process-which calls for filling the rockets while astronauts are on board-is sufficiently safe. NASA also said SpaceX will launch an uncrewed flight test in November, with Boeing not expected to do that until late in 2018 or in the early part of next year. What is not known is who gets to fly on which company's spacecraft, and on which flight they get to launch.

The Crew Dragon missions will pave the way for SpaceX's more ambitious projects, like sending the first humans to Mars as early as 2024.

The Dragon's first so-called operational mission will be manned by Victor Glover, a Navy commander, Naval aviator, and test pilot who will be making his first space flight. For the last seven years, we've been forced to essentially hitchhike, catch a ride with the Russians on Russian rockets. Interestingly, Ferguson will be the first former NASA astronaut to return to orbit as a company's crew member.

"This is just the beginning of the missions that this country is embarking upon.", says Geyer, "We are ready to assign the crews for the first flights, but the launch is only the beginning".

"If neither Boeing nor SpaceX are ready to fly by November 2019, the US risks a gap in access to the ISS", says Chaplain.

A white SpaceX launch suit and a blue Boeing launch suit stood on display behind the astronauts on stage. "We're not going to let you down".

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