And the winners are… NASA announces first astronauts to fly under Commercial Crew Program
HOUSTON — The race to develop new U.S. spacecraft to ferry astronauts to space reached another milestone with the announcement of the first crews that will fly on commercially-produced spacecraft. On Aug. 3, 2018, NASA selected the astronauts who will fly on the first Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crewed Dragon capsules.
The Commercial Crew Program is NASA’s strategy to end U.S. reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport to the International Space Station (ISS). Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, the Soyuz has been the only spacecraft available for humans to travel to the ISS.
There are no plans to use Soyuz as the primary crew transport for U.S. astronauts after 2019. However, the agency has added flights to the space station via Soyuz before.
NASA has lacked the ability to launch astronauts on its own since 2011. Each seat on Soyuz costs NASA north of $70 million. For the space agency, today’s announcement could mark the end of that dependency.
“Today, our country’s dreams of greater achievements in space are within our grasp,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine via an agency-issued release. “This accomplished group of American astronauts, flying on new spacecraft developed by our commercial partners Boeing and SpaceX, will launch a new era of human spaceflight. Today’s announcement advances our great American vision and strengthens the nation’s leadership in space.”
It is hoped that the vehicles produced by Boeing and SpaceX will allow NASA to maintain a crew of seven astronauts on the space station. At the same time, the agency is working to ready its Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft for their first flight, which is currently targeting 2020. While Commercial Crew is meant to send crews to low-Earth orbit, SLS and Orion are designed for missions beyond Earth.
And the winners are …
The astronauts selected to fly on these missions have spent the last three years learning the intricacies of both vehicles. When they were selected for these assignments in 2015, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders said, “We are excited to have such an experienced group of astronauts working with the Commercial Crew Program, Boeing and SpaceX and ultimately flying on the companies’ flight test missions. Naming these astronauts is a key step forward and consistent with past approaches to involve the crew in the design and development of new systems.”
Boeing Starliner Test Flight
- Eric Boe
Born in Florida and raised in Atlanta, Eric Boe will once again be taking to the Sunshine State’s skies as a member of this test flight. Boe served in the U.S. Air Force (achieving the rank of Colonel). He flew with Ferguson on STS-126 (a flight to the International Space Station carried out on Shuttle Endeavour). Boe also flew on STS-133, the final flight of Space Shuttle Discovery.
- Christopher Ferguson
As one might imagine, when you have a highly-experienced former Navy captain and NASA astronaut ( he left NASA in 2011) on payroll – you want him to carry out the first flight of the your crewed spacecraft. Therefore it came as no surprise that Boeing tapped Christopher Ferguson to fly on the Starliner’s test flight. Ferguson is a native of Philadelphia and flew on NASA’s now-retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters. His flights on the iconic shuttle were: STS-115, STS-126 and STS-135 (the final flight of the Space Shuttle Program which was carried out on Atlantis). Ferguson served as the commander of STS-126 and 135.
- Nicole Mann
Starliner’s test flight will also be the “first flight” for a member of its crew. Nicole Aunapu Mann, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, is no slouch, she is an F/A-18 test pilot with more than 2,500 flight hours in more than 25 aircraft. Tapped to be a member of NASA’s Astronaut Corps in 2013, Mann is known by another name, her callsign is “Duke.”
Boeing has tapped United Launch Alliance’s venerable Atlas V ( in the 422 configuration) to power Starliner on its way aloft. The Atlas V will take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) located in Florida. After the trio of astronauts listed above have put Starliner through its paces, another three astronauts will conduct the first non-test flight of the craft.
From three to two
- Josh Cassada
Cassada will be carrying out his first flight to space aboard Starliner after NASA reviews the vehicle’s performance. Like Williams, is a Commander in the U.S. Navy where he too was a test pilot. Cassada has more than 3,500 flight hours in more than 40 aircraft. He was selected as an astronaut in 2013.
- Sunita Williams
The first flight of Starliner will include another veteran space flyer – Sunita Williams. A test pilot herself, Williams was a captain in the U.S. Navy before joining NASA. Like several of her compatriots, she was a test pilot. Williams was selected to be an astronaut in 1998 and has spent almost a year on orbit (322 days aboard the International Space Station). Williams was a member of the station’s Expeditions 14/15 and Expeditions 32/33. She served as a commander of the orbiting lab and carried out seven extra-vehicular activities. She holds the record for cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut with a time of 50 hours and 40 minutes. She ranks second in female astronaut endurance and is sixth among all U.S. astronauts. Williams graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1987 with a bachelor of science in physical science, and from the Florida Institute of Technology in 1995 with a master of science in engineering management. She received her Naval commission in May 1987, becoming a helicopter pilot. Williams has flown more than 30 different aircraft logging over 3,000 flight hours.
Crew Dragon Test Flight
- Robert Behnken
Robert Behnken, is a U.S. Air Force colonel from St. Anne, Missouri and has logged more than 29 days in space to date. He has flown on both STS-123 in March or 2008 and STS-130 in February 2010. He has more than 37 hours of spacewalking, accumulated over six EVAs. During his tenure in the USAF, Behnken has flown more than 25 different aircraft logging over 1,300 hours flight time. Additionally, he earned bachelor degrees in physics and mechanical engineering from Washington University in 1992. He completed master and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology. Before being selected for the Commercial Crew program, he was the chief of the Astronaut Office. He was chosen for the astronaut corps in July 2000.
- Douglas Hurley
Retired U.S. Marine Colonel Douglas Hurley was born in Endicott, New York, but he considers Apalachin, New York, to be his hometown. After flying over 4,500 hours in more than 25 different aircraft, Hurley retired from the USMC in 2012. Hurley has spent more than 28 days in space as the pilot of STS-127 in July 2009 and STS-135 in July of 2011. Hurley was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2000. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1988. Hurley served in several technical assignments within NASA’s Astronaut Office including that of the NASA director of operations at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. His most recent assignment was as the assistant director of New Programs for the Flight Operations Directorate at Johnson.
Crew Dragon First Flight
- Victor Glover
A U.S. Navy Commander Victor Glover is from Pomona, California. Glover is an aviator and test pilot with nearly 3,000 hours flight time in more than 40 different aircraft. Glover is a combat veteran with 24 combat missions and 400 carrier landings a part of his résumé. He was selected as part of the 2013 astronaut candidate class. This will be Glover’s first spaceflight.
- Michael Hopkins
Michael Hopkins was born in Lebanon, Missouri, and grew up on a farm near Richland, Missouri. Hopkins is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, where he was a flight test engineer. Hopkins was chosen to join NASA’s elite corps of astronauts in 2009. He has almost a half year (166 days) on orbit as a member of Expeditions 37/38. During his time on the space station Hopkins conducted two EVAs.
Both Boeing and SpaceX have been testing their vehicles for crew transport. Boeing intends to fly the Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V rocket. They have completed milestones including parachute drop tests, but according to a report appearing on SpaceFlight Now, uncrewed demonstration flights will not occur until later this year – or possibly 2019. SpaceX has managed its own milestone list, most famously with a successful pad abort test in 2015. Currently both companies say they are on track for crewed launch in late 2019.
SpaceX’s CCP offerings to NASA are an all company affair. This is due to the fact that both the spacecraft itself, as well as the launch vehicle it will be flying on, a Falcon 9, are both produced by the Hawthorne, California based NewSpace firm. SpaceX plans to launch crew from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. This is the site from which Apollo astronauts lifted off on their way to the Moon. LC-39A is also where numerous Space Shuttle missions launched from
“We’re immensely proud of Chris and thrilled he will be part of first Starliner crew,” Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said. “We congratulate all the astronauts chosen to fly to the space station on commercially developed systems. We’re taking important steps for this nation and toward development of a thriving commercial space ecosystem.”
Not to be outdone by their colleague, SpaceX also weighed in on today’s announcement.
“Safely and reliably flying commercial crew missions for NASA remains the highest priority for SpaceX,” said Benji Reed, Director of Crew Mission Management at SpaceX said. “We look forward to launching Crew Dragon—designed to be one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built—and returning human-spaceflight capabilities to the United States for the first time since the Space Shuttle Program retired in 2011. SpaceX is targeting November 2018 for Crew Dragon’s first demonstration mission and April 2019 for Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission, which will carry two NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.”
Before making her remarks, SpaceX’s COO and President, Gwynne Shotwell, took a moment to capture a photo of the astronauts on stage using her cell phone. Speaking to the newly selected astronauts she said, “We take the responsibility (of flying crew) very seriously. We won’t let you down.” Shotwell took time to thank the more than 7,000 workers at SpaceX who have been working to build the Falcon 9 and Dragon vehicles. She also thanked the workers and contractors of NASA whom she said, “…have been working with SpaceX since 2006 to make Crew Dragon a success.”
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.