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 United States soil since 2011. NASA retired its space shuttle fleet that year, and started sending astronauts to the I.S.S. aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost that has risen to $81 million 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. (Watch the full video here.)
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 American access to the space station, because NASA has contracted for seats on Soyuz only through November 2019, the report found.
On Friday, NASA said that if uncrewed test flights go smoothly, the astronauts will fly before then, on roughly two-week test flights and later on missions 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 long-term mission, wrote on Twitter. Such missions usually last five to six months.
Colonel Hopkins had previously spent 166 days on the I.S.S., and conducted two spacewalks. He’ll 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.
Captain Williams has spent 322 days aboard the I.S.S. 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.
On the test flight for the Starliner will be: Eric Boe, a former space shuttle pilot who retired from the Air Force; Christopher Ferguson, a Boeing astronaut who left NASA in 2011; and Lt. Col. Nicole Mann of the Marine Corps. It would be the first space trip for Colonel Mann.
The Starliner will launch aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The uncrewed test flight is scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019. The test flight with crew is scheduled for mid-2019.
Douglas Stanley, head of the National Institute of Aerospace in Hampton, Va., said it’s crucial for the United States not to depend on Russia to conduct space research.
“We’re very pleased to see it happen,” he said. “We think its very important for the nation to have a domestic capability to launch astronauts.”
Maintaining the I.S.S. costs the federal government up to $4 billion a year, and NASA is working on plans to privatize it. The Trump administration proposed eliminating direct federal funding for the station by 2025, and allocating money to commercial entities who could operate it.
But NASA’s options may be limited by the international agreements that established the station in 1998.
Both Boeing and SpaceX are also working with Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas company that intends to launch private space stations into orbit, to be leased to nations or companies.
The contracts for travel to the I.S.S. were awarded in 2014. Boeing received a $4.2 billion contract, and SpaceX’s was for $2.6 billion. The contracts call for six missions, with as many as four astronauts per mission, for each company.
John M. Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, noted that buying a service from commercial providers is a major departure from how the space program has operated historically. He applauded the move.
“It’s a step toward broadening the means of access to space so it’s not just a government monopoly,” he said.
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