NASA has tapped nine astronauts to become the first to launch to space from American soil since the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011.
The seven men and two women will also be the first astronauts to fly in capsules developed and built by the private sector as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Since 2011, the United States has relied on Russia to ferry astronauts to the space station. SpaceX and Boeing were picked by NASA in 2014 to develop spacecrafts to return that capability to the United States, and both companies are slated to launch their first crewed missions in the next year. Some, however, deem that target ambitious.
During an announcement Friday to introduce the astronauts at Johnson Space Center in Texas, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the “health of NASA and our space exploration program is as strong as it’s ever been.”
All nine astronauts have military experience, and most are seasoned veterans of space.
Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who has worked with Boeing as it developed its Starliner spacecraft, will fly as a private astronaut. As the other astronauts donned NASA patches on their blue jumpsuits, Ferguson wore a Boeing applique.
“I’m just grateful to help usher in this new era of American spaceflight,” Ferguson told the crowd.
Ferguson will fly with NASA astronauts Eric Boe, a veteran of two Space Shuttle missions, and Nicole Aunapu Mann on the first crewed test flight of Starliner, which is currently projected to take place in mid-2019. It will mark Mann’s first trip to space.
The first crewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will include NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. That flight is currently projected to lift off in April of 2019. It will be the third trip to space for both Behnken and Hurley.
The first full mission of Boeing’s Starliner, which will fly to the ISS for a long-duration stay, will take ISS veteran Suni Williams and spaceflight newcomer Josh Cassada. Williams has already spent more than 300 days in space.
Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins, who has spent more than 160 days in space, were selected to crew SpaceX’s first full mission. It will be Glover’s first mission.
NASA ended the shuttle program seven years ago after 135 missions as the space agency shifted its priorities to developing hardware for deep space travel. Since the final shuttle mission ended, NASA has paid Russia about $70 million per seat to carry astronauts to and from ISS.
NASA’s deal with Russia is due to run out at the end of the decade, and delays faced by SpaceX and Boeing have the firms bumping up close against deadlines.
The Government Accountability Office recently issued a warning to NASA that it needs to have a contingency plan in place to ensure continued access to the space station, which costs the US about $3 billion annually.
Over the past several years, NASA has pushed the private sector to maintain a presence in low-Earth orbit. Meanwhile, the space agency has turned its attention to developing the Space Launch System launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft that could travel to the Moon or Mars.
Here’s a look at the astronauts who will fly on the first Commercial Crew missions:
Eric Boe: Boe was born in Florida and grew up in Atlanta. He began his career with the Air Force, and served as a fighter pilot, test pilot and colonel. While in the Air Force, he flew in 55 combat missions over Iraq. Boe was selected by NASA to be an astronaut in 2000. He flew on a Space Shuttle Endeavour mission in 2008 and a Space Shuttle Discovery mission in 2011.
Nicole Aunapu Mann: Mann was born in California and is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps. She has a master’s in mechanical engineering. As a naval aviator, she flew combat missions during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom before becoming a naval test pilot. She was selected by NASA to be an astronaut in 2013.
Chris Ferguson: A Philadelphia native, Ferguson served as a US Navy captain before he joined NASA in 1998. He has logged more than 40 days in space across three space shuttle missions. He commanded the final shuttle mission in 2011 and retired from NASA that same year. He has since worked with Boeing to develop and test the Starliner spacecraft.
Bob Behnken: Behnken is a native of St. Ann, Missouri. He is an Air Force colonel with a doctorate in engineering. Behnken was selected by NASA in 2000 and served as the agency’s chief astronaut between 2012 and 2015. He flew aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2008 and 2010. He’s performed six spacewalks totaling nearly 40 hours.
Doug Hurley: Hurley’s hometown is Apalachin, New York. He served more than 24 years in the US Marine Corps as a fighter pilot and a test pilot. He began his career at NASA in 2000 and piloted two space shuttle missions, one on Endeavor in 2009 and the final shuttle mission on Atlantis in 2011.
Josh Cassada: Cassada grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. He has a master’s degree in physics and is a US Navy test pilot who has served in more than 20 combat missions. A rookie to spaceflight, Cassada was selected by NASA in 2013.
Suni Williams: Williams grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. She is a retired Navy captain and test pilot and was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1998. She has spent 322 days in orbit during two missions to the space station. Her first was a space shuttle mission that launched in 2007, and the second was a Soyuz-launched mission in 2012.
Victor Glover: Glover is a native of Pomona, California and he has three master’s degrees. He also serves as a Navy commander, naval aviator and was a test pilot. Glover was selected by NASA in 2013, and his mission with SpaceX will mark his first time in space.
Mike Hopkins: Hopkins was raised on a farm near Richland, Missouri, and he has a master’s in aerospace engineering. He is an Air Force colonel. He was selected by NASA in 2009, and spent 166 days aboard the International Space Station during a mission that launched on a Russian rocket in 2013.
The biographical information in this report was provided by NASA.