Sunita Williams among 9 astronauts to fly on US' first private spaceships

Gwen Vasquez
August 6, 2018

On the first operational mission to the International Space Station, Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada would fly for Boeing.

"This is a big deal for our country and we want America to know that we are back, that we are flying American astronauts on American rockets from American soil", NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said as he unveiled the crew members in Houston, Texas.

SpaceX's first flight test is scheduled for April 2019, while Boeing's is planned for mid-2019.

Ferguson will fly with NASA astronauts Eric Boe, a veteran of two Space Shuttle missions, and Nicole Aunapu Mann on the first crewed test flight of Starliner, which is now projected to take place in mid-2019.

Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson, who commanded NASA's last space shuttle mission in 2011, appears to be a sure thing for the first Starliner crew, based on advance reports.

The astronauts will fly into space on Boeing and Space X vehicles in 2019, making it NASA's first human spaceflight program since the retirement of space shuttle in 2011. Ferguson is a former NASA astronaut and space shuttle commander who now works on Boeing's Starliner program. Though that will require final certification for International Space Station deliveries first, the space agency has already confirmed partial crews for those first missions. The Space Agency further made an official announcement on Friday that the first launch will be carried out by nine astronauts.

Behnken and Hurley, veterans of two spaceflights each, will lift off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. At the time, SpaceX's Crew Dragon (known as Dragon V2 at the time) and Boeing's Starliner (just CST-100 back then) won a four-year competition-and contracts worth billions-to fly astronauts to space.

Since her selection as an astronaut in 1998, she has spent 322 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for Expeditions 14/15 and Expeditions 32/33, commanded the space station and performed seven spacewalks, the U.S. space agency said in a statement.

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For Mann, a former F-18 test pilot with the Marines, though, this will be her first space flight.

As for being the only non-NASA guy on board, Ferguson explained later during a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" program that Boeing always uses company test pilots for first flights "and the Starliner is no exception". These test flights will provide invaluable data on how rockets, ground systems, operations and the spacecraft themselves perform. It will be Cassada's first spaceflight.

Glover, a former Navy commander and test pilot, was also among the 2013 astronaut class.

When test flights do launch, Boeing's flight is dubbed Orbital Flight Test followed by Crew Flight Test. SpaceX's first flight is dubbed Demonstration Mission 1 followed by Demonstration Mission 2.

"As a test pilot it doesn't get any better than this", Mann told the audience, when asked about being the first to fly a new spacecraft.

But NASA's options may be limited by the global agreements that established the station in 1998.

Dragon is the only space station resupply spacecraft now capable of returning cargo to Earth, and this was the second trip to the orbiting laboratory for this spacecraft.

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