NASA names nine astronauts for SpaceX and Boeing flights to space station

The crews for the first four flights on SpaceX and Boeing space taxis wave to the cameras after their introduction at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. (NASA via YouTube)

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.

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.

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

Crew Dragon First Mission Astronauts

NASA said more crew members will be assigned later by international partners.