America, meet your new astronauts.
After a nearly decadelong hiatus, NASA plans to once again start launching piloted spacecraft from American soil, this time aboard two commercially developed vehicles, beginning in early to mid-2019. On Friday, the space agency introduced the nine-member team tasked with making the first flights.
Team Boeing consists of retired Air Force Col. Eric Boe, retired Navy Capt. Chris Ferguson and Marine Corps test pilot Nicole Mann, who will conduct the first Starliner flight test sometime in mid-2019. Two top Navy pilots, Josh Cassada and Suni Williams, will be on a subsequent Starliner flight ― considered the craft’s first mission.
SpaceX’s four-member crew consists of Air Force flight test engineer Bob Behnken and retired Marine Corps test pilot Doug Hurley, tasked with the Dragon’s demo flight scheduled for April 2019; Dragon’s first mission will be flown by Navy test pilot Victor Glover and the Air Force’s Mike Hopkins.
Only seven astronauts in history have been the first to fly on a brand-new U.S. spacecraft.
At a press briefing Friday, Lt. Col. Mann called her maiden voyage aboard the Starliner the “opportunity of a lifetime,” saying it’s one that will “help usher in this new era of American spaceflight.”
“As a test pilot, it doesn’t get any better than this,” she added.
Gone are the days of the iconic yet bulky spacesuits. They are set to be replaced with new spacecraft-specific versions, touted as “lightweight” and “minimalistic” in marketing materials.
No NASA astronaut has rocketed into space from American soil since July 8, 2011, when the space shuttle Atlantis took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, laden with 28,000 pounds of supplies for the International Space Station.
The successful flight marked the scheduled end of the 30-year space shuttle program. NASA has been paying Russia for flights launched from remote Kazakhstan to the ISS ever since, banking on its Commercial Crew Program to develop a cheaper, reliable and safe American-based alternative.