Today, NASA announced the crew assignments for the first major flights of SpaceX and Boeing’s Commercial Crew spacecraft — the vehicles that the companies are designed to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. These crews will be the first passengers to ride on the company’s vehicles, testing to see if the spacecraft are ready to do regular trips to the ISS. The first test flights are scheduled for 2019, with the first operational missions taking place at some unknown date afterward.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will be the first crew members to travel aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, an upgraded version of the company’s Dragon cargo capsule that’s meant to ride to space on top of the Falcon 9 rocket. They’ll be on the first test flight of the vehicle, a crucial trip that NASA will use to certify the Crew Dragon for future human missions. Once certified, the first operational mission of Crew Dragon will include NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins.
Meanwhile, NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Aunapu Mann will be the first to crew Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, a capsule that goes to orbit on top of an Atlas V rocket made by the United Launch Alliance. Boeing also plans to fly its own private crew member, Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut, on that test flight as well. After that, NASA astronauts Josh Cassada and Sunita “Suni” Williams will be on the first operational mission of the Starliner to the station.
In 2015, NASA announced four of the astronauts who would be the first to fly as part of the program. However, the space agency did not say which spacecraft the astronauts would ride in on their first flights. Most of the astronauts have previous spaceflight experience from riding on the Space Shuttle or Russian Soyuz rocket. Astronauts Nicole Aunapu Mann, Victor Glover, and Josh Cassada will be making their spaceflight debuts with these Commercial Crew flights. Additionally, more crew members from NASA’s international partners, such as the European Space Agency, will be added to both SpaceX and Boeing’s first missions at a later date.
The news, announced today at a ceremony at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, comes just a day after NASA reported more delays for the Commercial Crew program. Both SpaceX and Boeing are slated to do an uncrewed test flight and a crewed test flight before their capsules can be certified to do routine missions to the ISS. The uncrewed and crew flight tests were originally scheduled for this August and later this year, respectively, but following an engine test mishap, Boeing is now targeting the end of this year or the beginning of next year for its uncrewed flight, and it will try to fly its first crew in mid-2019. SpaceX, meanwhile, aims to do its first uncrewed flight in November, with the first crews flying in April of next year.
But once these crews do fly, it will mark the first time that NASA astronauts have launched from US soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program. For the last seven years, NASA has been relying on Russia to get its astronauts to the ISS. The space agency has also spent about $80 million to purchase a seat for one of its astronauts on Russia’s Soyuz vehicle. However, NASA’s prepurchased seats are expected to run out by next year, around the time that crews are supposed to start flying with SpaceX and Boeing.
“For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at today’s Commercial Crew announcement. He later addressed the crew members onstage with him: “I hope all of you understand the excitement. It’s not just the people in this audience. It’s Americans all across this country that are ready to start flying in space again. And we’re so grateful you’re willing to step up and accomplish the job.”