NASA named nine astronauts who will be on the first space flights launched from USA soil since the shuttle program ended in 2011.
The astronauts named on Friday will be carried aloft aboard spacecraft developed by entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX and Boeing Co, crewing first the test flights, and then missions involving both Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon. It now looks like SpaceX will be the first to launch humans on its crew Dragon spacecraft, set for April 2019.
NASA plans to announce its final decision on the crews - two astronauts for each of the four crewed test flights - on Friday morning.
NASA has been collaborating with commercial space companies for years, with the goal of having the private sector take over "routine" trips to the space station and low Earth orbit.
NASA also unveiled part of the crews who will ride the CST-100 and Crew Dragon's first regular crew rotation flights, called "post-certification" missions by the space agency and its contractors. NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins would fly Dragon's first operational mission to the space station.
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The space station's operational lifespan has already been extended to reach 2025, though the White House recently began discussing the idea of turning the aging station over to commercial investors who might be interested in continuing the ISS's run of maintaining a continuously manned presence in space for almost two decades.
NASA has been paying billions of dollars to SpaceX and Boeing to develop the crew capsules to pick up where the space shuttles left off in 2011, while also paying billions for cargo deliveries to the space station by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman.
NASA/Kennedy Space Center (via Flickr); Boeing; Shayanne Gal/Business InsiderAn illustration of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft (left) and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft (right).
If those flights are successful, the companies will be certified by NASA for crew rotation missions. This will be Mann's first launch, having joined the astronaut corps in 2013. The unmanned test flight is scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019. He is a colonel in the Air Force, where he was a flight test engineer before being selected as a NASA astronaut in 2009. "Falcon 9's first and second stages for the Demo-1 mission are targeted to ship from SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California to the company's rocket testing facility in McGregor, Texas for additional testing in August", NASA said. "We had our quarterly [review] this week, and for the first time in years, it felt real".
Boeing's Starliner will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Crew members have worked years with companies to get here and they said they can not wait for the flights to begin next year. Since her selection as an astronaut in 1998, she has spent 322 days aboard the International Space Station for Expeditions 14/15 and Expeditions 32/33, commanded the space station and performed seven spacewalks.