NASA Assigns Crews to First Test Flights, Missions on Commercial Spacecraft

A support structure for Boeing's Starliner spacecraft the first flight of which has been postponed to 2019 is seen being installed in Cape Canaveral Florida in 2016

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They will be accompanied by Nicole Aunapu Mann who will make her first trip to space, and the experienced Sunita Williams, former pilot of the US Navy (52 years).

For the past seven years, NASA astronauts have hitched rides to the orbiting outpost on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft - at a cost of some US$80 million a seat.

The three pioneers will help restore American access to space from USA soil, a capability that ended when the shuttle was retired seven years ago.

"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", said Gwynne Shotwell, the chief operating officer of SpaceX, at the Friday press conference.

On the first human test flight of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft, NASA selected astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Mann to join Boeing executive Chris Ferguson.

In addition to naming the crews of the test flights, NASA also announced the four astronauts who will fly aboard the first operational Starliner and Dragon missions to the space station.

Clockwise from top left: Sunita Williams, Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley and Eric Boe. "Through the Commercial Crew program, our astronauts and engineers have been working hand in hand with Boeing and SpaceX companies to develop these first commercial crew vehicles capable of carrying humans into space." said Mark Geyer, the new Director of NASA Johnson Space Center.

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NASA's Commercial Crew Program is facilitating the development of a US commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit. NASA has worked closely with the companies throughout design, development and testing to ensure the systems meet NASA's safety and performance requirements.

But NASA's options may be limited by the worldwide agreements that established the station in 1998. Last week, the agency announced it expects SpaceX to complete an uncrewed test flight in November 2018, followed by a crewed flight in April 2019.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended NASA pursue a backup plan for getting astronauts to the ISS, as its contract with Russian Federation to send them to the station via Soyuz launches in Kazakhstan ends at the close of 2019. These test flights will provide invaluable data on how rockets, ground systems, operations and the spacecraft themselves perform.

The first crewed flights will only spend a short period of time in orbit before coming back to Earth. Many view this as the first step towards taking more people into space.

The contracts for travel to the International Space Station were awarded in 2014.

Boeing's Starliners will soar on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets. Journey on one of the last shuttle missions to witness some final "firsts" made aboard this unique spacecraft.

Glover, a former Navy commander and test pilot, was also among the 2013 astronaut class. The group includes eight current NASA astronauts and one Boeing astronaut.

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