NASA on Friday named four crews of astronauts that it says will begin “a new era in American spaceflight” by flying the first commercial spaceships, built by Boeing and SpaceX, in a series of test launches.
“For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts from American rockets on American soil,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a televised briefing on Friday.
Crew Dragon, designed and built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and the CST-100 Starliner, made by Boeing, are the two spacecraft being developed for NASA as part of its Commercial Crew Program. Each ship requires two crewed test launches before NASA will certify it for routine flight.
The astronauts named Friday (see the full list below) are tasked with those missions, all four of which are set to happen sometime in 2019.
NASA started the Commercial Crew Program in 2010, just before it retired the last space shuttle in July 2011. The competition asked private spaceflight companies to develop new astronaut-ready spacecraft – and Boeing and SpaceX emerged as the winners. The agency has doled out more than $US8 billion in awards and contracts over the past decade.
The program’s core goals are to get American-made ships able to reach the International Space Station and to reduce or eliminate the US’s reliance on Russia’s ever more expensive Soyuz spaceships to fly there.
Boeing and SpaceX were supposed to have their systems certified by 2017, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, but the program has met multiple setbacks. Some delays stemmed from launch vehicles, such as the September 2016 launchpad explosion of an uncrewed SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, while others came during spaceship development; Boeing, for example, recently discovered a fuel leak in its Starliner system.
If the spacecraft aren’t certified and ready by the end of 2019, NASA could temporarily lose access to the ISS. But the agency is confident that the Boeing and SpaceX missions are moving toward completion – a sentiment underscored by Friday’s announcement.
NASA selected eight active astronauts and one retired astronaut from a wide array of backgrounds. The group includes former space-shuttle flyers, ex-military test pilots, rookies, and – critically – a cadre of four astronauts who’ve already been testing and providing feedback on the new commercial ships for years.
Here’s what we know about the first astronauts to take part in a new space race.
Dana Varinsky contributed to this post.
NASA selected its first nine commercial astronaut crews from a pool of about 34 candidates.
More than 50 people are in NASA’s astronaut corps, though 12 in the agency’s 2017 astronaut class are still training.
NASA previously told Business Insider that anyone currently assigned to a space mission wouldn’t be picked for the Boeing and SpaceX flights. That left 33 “active” and eligible astronauts.
Four shoe-in picks were part of a “Commercial Crew Cadre” (pictured above): a group of astronauts who’ve worked with SpaceX and Boeing for three years to develop the new vehicles.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner ships can each carry up to seven people. NASA assigned two of its astronauts to each of the first four missions.
Boeing is also planning to fly one of its own employees as a third crew member on the company’s inaugural flight of the CST-100 Starliner.
Here are the newly selected NASA astronauts:
Boe, who was selected as an astronaut in 2000, is arguably one of the most experienced pilots in the Commercial Crew Cadre, the group of four astronauts who have been testing SpaceX’s and Boeing’s spacecraft.
“Watching the small incremental changes to come together to make revolutionary change is just an amazing thing,” Boe said during a question-and-answer portion of Friday’s event at Johnson Space Center in Texas.
As a retired Air Force colonel and test pilot, Boe has flown more than 6,000 hours inside 50 different aircraft. He also piloted two space-shuttle missions to and from Earth orbit.
Boe is part of the mission that will fly the first crewed Boeing test flight, scheduled for mid-2019.
In addition to NASA’s eight current astronauts who will fly on the first crewed Boeing and SpaceX missions, there’s Ferguson, a retired astronaut.
Ferguson is now the first “corporate astronaut” – he’s on Boeing’s payroll but will be the third crew member on Boeing’s first crewed test flight, The Washington Post first reported.
Ferguson is a logical pick, since he’s worked on the CST-100 Starliner program for many years and was a space-shuttle commander, a space-shuttle pilot, and a Navy test pilot.
“With 40 years’ difference in avionics and technology, we can squeeze a lot more into a smaller ship,” Ferguson said on Friday. “So you see a lot of that, a lot more capability in terms of what the vehicles can do. But I think what we really see now is a much greater emphasis on safety.”
He’s is part of the mission that will fly the first crewed Boeing test flight, scheduled for mid-2019.
Nicole “Duke” Mann
Mann has never flown to space. But she’s a lieutenant colonel in the US Marine Corps as well as a naval test pilot with 2,500 hours of flying in 22 types of aircraft. She’s also landed fighter jets 200 times on aircraft carriers – an extremely challenging feat – and flown 47 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’m just grateful to be able to help usher in this new era of American space flight,” Mann said during NASA’s announcement. “As a test pilot, it really doesn’t get any better than this.”
She’ll be part of the first crewed Boeing test flight, scheduled for mid-2019.
Selected as an astronaut in 2000, Behnken has twice flown into orbit on NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour. He’s also an experienced Air Force test pilot with more than 1,500 hours of flight on 25 different aircraft.
Like Boe, Behnken has been working hand in hand with Boeing, SpaceX, and NASA to improve the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner spaceships. So he’s well equipped to fly them.
During Friday’s event, he compared the space shuttle’s development to that of Boeing and SpaceX’s ships.
“It’s super hard to try to duplicate [the space shuttle] in just the short period that we’ve had,” Behnken said. “It had decades to mature to where it was when we got our chances to fly it, those of us who did it towards the end of the shuttle program.”
Behnken also understands the risks of spaceflight firsthand: He was waiting near the runway where Space Shuttle Columbia was supposed to land in 2003. That’s when he heard that the ship had broken apart during atmospheric reentry, killing its seven-member crew.
He’s on the mission that will fly the first crewed SpaceX test flight, scheduled for February 2019, and he’s looking forward to the streamlined operation.
“The way we described the space shuttle was that there were about 3,000 switches inside and there was no situation the astronauts couldn’t make worse by touching the wrong button at the wrong time,” he said. “We’re grateful that the next vehicle that we’re going to fly on is going to be a little bit more automated.”
Douglas “Chunky” Hurley
Hurley is a two-time space-shuttle pilot and was also selected in 2000 by NASA.
Like Behnken and Boe, Hurley was a test pilot in the military. (Other astronauts sometimes refer to him as “Chunky,” his military call sign.) During his service, he logged more than 5,000 hours in 25 different aircraft for the Navy.
Hurley has spent the past three years working on the Commercial Crew Program to provide ideas, hands-on testing, and feedback – so he’s very knowledgeable about both spacecraft.
Hurley is part of the mission that will fly the first crewed SpaceX test flight, scheduled for February 2019.
“The first flight is something you dream about as a test pilot, and you don’t ever think it’s going to happen to you, but it looks like it might,” Hurley said. (Bridenstine replied: “Oh, it better.”)
“Bob and I are extremely excited to put Dragon through its paces in space and get to the International Space Station again,” Hurley added, referring to Behnken. “This is going to be fun.”
Sunita “Suni” Williams
Williams, who grew up in Massachusetts, is a Navy veteran and has been a NASA astronaut since 1998. She has flown inside three spaceships on two missions, served as commander of the International Space Station, lived in orbit for 322 days, and, in her previous career, piloted 30 different types of aircraft.
She’s also been providing crucial feedback to Boeing and SpaceX as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Cadre with Boe, Behnken, and Hurley.
“Five years ago, this would have been like, ‘No way, what are we doing asking commercial providers to be able to do this?'” Williams previously told Business Insider. “Now it feels like a natural progression for space travel.”
Williams is part of the mission that will fly the second crewed Boeing test flight, possibly in 2019, that will stay at the ISS.
Cassada is a Navy commander and test pilot with 3,500 hours of flight experience across 40 different aircraft. He’s flown 23 combat missions – and is a doctorate-wielding particle physicist.
NASA selected Cassada as an astronaut in 2013, and he has yet to fly to space. During the Friday event, Cassada revealed that he isn’t very confident in the Russian-language skills that he would have needed for a Soyuz flight.
“I’m sure there is at least one Russian-language instructor out there who thinks having me fly on a US vehicle is not a terrible idea,” Cassada said.
More seriously, Cassada said he thought the program was “in great hands” with private-industry players, adding, “Being able to launch to the International Space Station from US soil – I can’t imagine a better honour, and we’re ready.”
He’ll be part of the mission that will fly the second crewed Boeing test flight with Williams.
Glover was selected by NASA as an astronaut in 2013 and completed his training two years later. Though he has yet to visit space, he’s no rookie to flying – he remains a test pilot and commander in the US Navy. Glover has flown more than 2,000 hours in 40 aircraft, made 400 landings on an aircraft carrier, and completed 24 combat missions.
“To work and live in space is just a humbling and amazing blessing in and of itself,” Glover said Friday. “And now to have the opportunity to work with these great companies on something that is so important to our nation and to NASA – this is the stuff of dreams.”
Glover is part of the mission that will fly the second crewed SpaceX test flight, which will stay at the ISS, possibly in 2019.
NASA selected Hopkins as astronaut in 2009, and he’s flown in space once, for a duration of 166 days.
Like many of NASA’s others picks for the first Commercial Crew Program test flights, Hopkins also has military experience working with aircraft: He’s an Air Force commander and flight engineer.
He’s assigned to the mission that will fly the second crewed SpaceX test flight, possibly launching in 2019, that will stay at the ISS for some time.
“Commercial transportation to and from the space station is going to enable us to maximise the benefit of that orbiting laboratory,” Hopkins said on Friday. “In addition to taking the human resources, the astronauts, to the space station, it’s also going to enable us to take science experiments up and bring some of that critical research home.”
After the astronauts were named, Bridenstine presented executives from Boeing and SpaceX with American flags to fly at their headquarters.
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, told the astronauts: “The 7,000 women and men of SpaceX understand what a sacred honour this was for us to be part of this program, and for us to fly you, so thank you very much. We take it seriously. We won’t let you down.”
Shotwell added that SpaceX hoped to launch its first demonstration mission – a Crew Dragon without any people inside – in November.
“I can tell you: Predicting launch sites can make a liar out of every one of us. I have been proven one,” she said. “But I can tell you it’s right upon us.”
The space agency hasn’t confirmed precise launch dates for any of the four crewed missions, which are about two years behind schedule.
A report published last month by the Government Accountability Office said Boeing and SpaceX were supposed to have their systems certified by 2017.
The GAO also warned of more delays in uncrewed and crewed launches that NASA needs to see, perhaps pushing certification into 2020, when the space agency won’t have access to Soyuz. It’s said to have no backup plan to reach the ISS.
Further delays may cut off NASA astronauts’ access to space, temporarily but significantly, after the last Soyuz flight, scheduled for late 2019.