For the first time since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011, American astronauts will once again launch to the International Space Station from U.S. soil.
The U.S. space agency on August 3 named the teams of astronauts who will fly aboard the first “commercial crew missions” to and from low Earth orbit.
This time, it won’t be NASA providing the ride to space. Private companies SpaceX and Boeing have developed new spacecraft, the Crew Dragon and Starliner, respectively. Both are designed to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the space station, which orbits about 400 kilometers above the planet.
At an event announcing the newest commercial crew astronauts, space agency leader Jim Bridenstine said investment in NASA has kept America the leader in space. From the way we communicate to the way we produce food, “space has transformed the lives of not only every American, but every person on the face of the planet in so many ways that people usually don’t even recognize it,” he said.
Target dates for the new spacecraft are next year: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is expected to launch with astronauts in April, and the Boeing Starliner is looking to launch in mid-2019.
Let’s meet the newest astronauts who will fly these first missions:
Boeing Starliner test flight
For Starliner’s first crewed flight in mid-2019, Eric Boe, Nicole Aunapu Mann and Christopher Ferguson will put the craft through its paces. Boe and Ferguson flew on the space shuttle, and Mann is a U.S. Marine Corps pilot preparing for her first flight in space.
“As a test pilot, it doesn’t get any better than this,” she said.
SpaceX Crew Dragon test flight
Veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will pilot the first crewed mission of the SpaceX Crew Dragon. Behnken said he’s excited about the cutting-edge software on the spacecraft. In the space shuttle, with its thousands of controls, “there was no situation that the astronauts couldn’t make worse by touching the wrong switch at the wrong time,” Behnken said. The Crew Dragon incorporates much more automation.
Starliner first mission
Josh Cassada and Suni Williams both have backgrounds as U.S. Navy test pilots. Cassada joined the astronaut corps in 2013, when astronauts expected to fly to the International Space Station on Russia’s Soyuz rockets. “I’m sure that there’s at least one Russian-language instructor out there who thinks that having me fly on a U.S. vehicle is not a terrible idea,” he quipped. Williams said she is excited about showing off the spacecraft to international partners. “There’s a lot to be done, and we’re just the beginning,” she said.
Crew Dragon first mission
Astronauts Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins will lead SpaceX’s first full mission to the International Space Station. Glover, who has flown more than 40 different aircraft for the U.S. Navy, said he is honored to be a part of a new chapter of American spaceflight. “This is the stuff of dreams,” he said.