NASA unveiled the first nine astronauts for its commercial crew missions to the International Space Station today, including rookies as well as seasoned veterans.
The “New Nine” include two women and seven men. All but one of them are current NASA astronauts. The ninth spaceflier is Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson, who flew three space shuttle missions (including the last one, as commander) and now works on Boeing’s Starliner program.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine introduced the astronauts during a ceremony at Johnson Space Center in Texas that was attended by members of Congress and other VIPs.
The ceremony took on a celebratory mood, in part because it presaged the first crewed trips to orbit from U.S. soil since the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011. For the past seven years, the only route to space for NASA astronauts has run through Russia and its spaceport in Kazakhstan, at a price of as much as $80 million a seat.
“We are on the brink of launching American astronauts, on American rockets, from American soil,” Bridenstine said, sparking cheers and applause from the audience.
After the introductions, Bridenstine took the prerogative of posing the first question to the astronauts: How will it feel to fly?
Nicole Aunapu Mann, who’ll be making her first spaceflight on the Starliner test mission, turned to veteran astronaut Doug Hurley, who’ll be on the SpaceX Dragon’s first crewed test flight.
“I don’t know about you, Chunky, but as a test pilot, it doesn’t get any better than this,” said Mann, using Hurley’s call sign.
“No, it really doesn’t,” Hurley replied. “The first flight is something that you dream about as a test pilot, and you don’t think it’s ever going to happen to you. But it looks like it might.”
“Oh, it better,” Bridenstine chimed in.
The current timeline calls for SpaceX to launch an uncrewed Dragon 2 craft to the space station in November, with Hurley’s flight to follow in April. Boeing plans to send an uncrewed Starliner to the station in late 2018 or early 2019, with Mann’s flight scheduled for mid-2019.
The flight schedules have slipped repeatedly, and it’d be no surprise if they slipped again. But SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said she had a feeling the schedule would hold this time.
“We had our quarterly [meeting] this week, and for the first time in years, it felt real,” Shotwell said during the ceremony. “It’s real. It’s right here.”
Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said she was particularly looking forward to seeing the astronauts add their Starliner experience to resumes that already include flights on other Boeing-built craft such as F-15 and F-18 fighter jets.
“You name it, you all have flown it,” Caret said. “We are just thrilled to be with you on the long run.”
Here’s NASA’s full rundown for the New Nine:
Crew Dragon Test Flight Astronauts
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, no earlier than April 2019.
- Robert Behnken: Hails from St. Ann in Missouri. He has a doctorate in engineering and is a flight test engineer and colonel in the Air Force. Joined the astronaut corps in 2000 and flew aboard space shuttle Endeavour in 2008 and 2010, during which he performed six spacewalks totaling more than 37 hours.
- Doug Hurley: Calls Apalachin, N.Y., his hometown. He was a test pilot and colonel in the Marine Corps before coming to NASA in 2000 to become an astronaut. Piloted shuttle missions in 2009 and 2011 (on Atlantis, the final shuttle mission, with Ferguson as commander).
Starliner Test Flight Astronauts
Boeing’s Starliner will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, no earlier than mid-2019.
- Eric Boe: Born in Miami, raised in Atlanta. He came to NASA from the Air Force, where he was a fighter pilot and test pilot and rose to the rank of colonel. Selected as an astronaut in 2000 and flew shuttle missions in 2008 and 2011.
- Chris Ferguson: Philadelphia native, retired Navy captain. Three shuttle flights, in 2006, 2008 (with Boe) and 2011 (with Hurley). He retired from NASA in 2011 and has been an integral part of Boeing’s Starliner program.
- Nicole Aunapu Mann: California native and a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps. An F/A-18 test pilot with more than 2,500 flight hours in more than 25 aircraft. Mann was selected as an astronaut in 2013. First trip to space.
After each company successfully completes its crewed test flight, NASA will begin the process of certifying the spacecraft and systems for regular crew missions to the space station. The agency has contracted six missions, with as many as four astronauts per mission, for each company.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office said the certification process could delay the regular crew missions until 2020.
Starliner First Mission Astronauts
- Josh Cassada: Grew up in White Bear Lake, Minn. Navy commander and test pilot with more than 3,500 flight hours in more than 40 aircraft. Selected as astronaut in 2013. First spaceflight.
- Sunita Williams: Born in Euclid, Ohio, but considers Needham, Mass., her hometown. Came to NASA in 1998 from the Navy, where she was a test pilot and rose to the rank of captain before retiring. Has spent 322 days aboard the space station during two long-duration tours of duty in 2006-2007 and 2012. She has served as a space station commander, and has performed seven spacewalks. Williams ran the first marathon in space in 2007.
Crew Dragon First Mission Astronauts
- Victor Glover: Hails from Pomona, Calif. Navy commander, aviator and test pilot with almost 3,000 hours flying more than 40 different aircraft. Selected as astronaut in 2013. First spaceflight.
- Michael Hopkins: Born and raised in Missouri. Colonel in the Air Force, where he was a flight test engineer before being selected as a NASA astronaut in 2009. Spent 166 days on the space station in 2013-2014, during which he conducted two spacewalks.
NASA said more crew members will be assigned later by international partners.