NASA has selected the astronauts who will crew the first commercial orbital spacecraft in history, Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which are expected to test-fly as early as spring 2019. The decision heralds the next step toward a future of increasingly integrated public and private space exploration, and a new era for American spaceflight.
Announced on Friday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the first Boeing Starliner crew, scheduled to launch in mid-2019, will consist of astronauts Eric Boe and Chris Ferguson, both of whom have visited orbit on previous NASA missions, along with first-time astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will make up the first SpaceX Dragon crew, on track to launch in spring 2019.
The second crews for Starliner and Crew Dragon will become the first to visit the International Space Station (ISS) in the newly developed capsules. For Boeing, that crew will consist of accomplished NASA astronaut Sunita (Suni) Williams and first-time astronaut John Cassada. NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins and first-time astronaut Victor Glover will make up SpaceX’s second Dragon crew.
The official assignment of these astronauts marks a major milestone for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), created to replace the Space Shuttle fleet after its retirement in 2011. To save costs and help boost the commercial space industry, NASA turned over development of the next American crewed spacecraft to three private companies: SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. NASA has awarded over $8.2 billion in contracts to companies to fast-track development of their spacecraft proposals.
In the meantime, every spacefaring nation on Earth has been dependent on Russia to ferry its crews to and from the ISS with the Soyuz capsule. Successful test flights of the Starliner and Crew Dragon would end the current Russian monopoly on human orbital transportation. Not only does the current setup require paying Russia at least $70 million for each seat on the Soyuz, it also limits crews to three people—the maximum capacity on the Russian capsule.
Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, in contrast, are designed to accommodate crews of seven, though the companies are expected to allocate at least two or three seats for their own commercial purposes. The Starliner will be launched by United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket while the Dragon will be launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
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