NASA named nine astronauts who hope to blast off next year on flights to the International Space Station aboard commercial ferry ships built by Boeing and SpaceX. The flights will be the first piloted launches to orbit from the United States since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.
“We’re delivering on the critical task of providing the capability to fly our crews on a U.S.-built rocket and spacecraft from U.S. soil on Florida’s Space Coast to the International Space Station so we no longer have to rely on our Russian partners to get our crews to space,” said former shuttle commander Robert Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center.
Four of the astronauts — Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley, Robert Behnken and Sunita Williams — were named earlier but they were not assigned to specific flights or vehicles. The expanded nine-member commercial crew cadre now features six spaceflight veterans, including Chris Ferguson, commander of that final shuttle mission and now a Boeing vice president, and three rookies. Two of the nine are women.
SpaceX’s crewed Dragon capsule will launch atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Boeing’s CST-100 “Starliner” will be blasted to orbit by United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets from pad 41 at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Boeing and SpaceX both plan one unpiloted test flight before the astronauts climb on board. SpaceX is targeting late November for its first test flight while Boeing is expected to launch in late December or January.
The first piloted test flights are expected next spring. Target dates have not yet been determined, but if no major problems crop up, SpaceX may be ready to fly by the April timeframe with Boeing following suit a month or so later.