NASA Assigns First Crews For Boeing Starliner & SpaceX Crew Dragon Flights

NASA introduced to the world on Aug. 3, 2018, the first U.S. astronauts who will fly on American-made, commercial spacecraft to and from the International Space Station – an endeavor that will return astronaut launches to U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011. The agency assigned nine astronauts to crew the first test flight and mission of both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The astronauts are, from left to right: Sunita Williams, Josh Cassada, Eric Boe, Nicole Mann, Christopher Ferguson, Douglas Hurley, Robert Behnken, Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover. Credits: NASA

It has been almost eight years—2,880 days, to be exact—since the United States last named a team of astronauts to launch into space, aboard a U.S.-built spacecraft, and from U.S. soil. On 14 September 2010, veteran spacefarers Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim were assigned to what became the final flight of the shuttle program, STS-135 in July 2011. Since then, U.S. astronauts have relied solely on Russia to get to and from the International Space Station (ISS), and a cadre was named in July 2015 for Commercial Crew. Yet for eight years, no mission-specific assignments were made for U.S.-built spacecraft, with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

All that changed at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas today.

Presiding over a panel which included SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell and Boeing’s executive vice president Leanne Caret, together with JSC Director Mark Geyer and Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Bob Cabana—NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed the long-awaited names of the men and women who will pilot America’s next human-rated spacecraft on their inaugural flights.

The final space shuttle launch in 2011, Atlantis STS-135. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

“Today, our country’s dreams of greater achievements in space are within our grasp,” said Bridenstine. “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.”

When SpaceX and Boeing were chosen in September 2014, after a multi-phase selection campaign, the terms of the combined $6.8 billion contract called for one uncrewed and one crewed test flight of their respective spacecraft, before “at least two, and as many as six” operational Post-Certification Missions (PCMs) to deliver and exchange long-duration astronauts and cosmonauts to the ISS. In May 2015 Boeing received its first PCM award, with SpaceX gaining its first PCM in November 2015.

Unfortunately, the target launch dates for the test flights and the PCMs have repeatedly slipped over recent years.

The second woman in history to command a space station crew, Suni Williams (right), and “rookie” Josh Cassada, will fly the first Post-Certification Mission (PCM) of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner in late 2019 or early 2020. Photo Credit: NASA

Both SpaceX and Boeing now have their full complement of six PCM contracts. Boeing secured its second post-certification crew-rotation mission in December 2015 and SpaceX did likewise in July 2016, with both organizations awarded four more PCMs apiece in January 2017. It was noted at the time that these and future orders would typically be made two to three years before flight, thus allowing optimum time to fabricate the spacecraft and their respective launch vehicles: SpaceX’s Upgraded Falcon 9 in the case of Crew Dragon and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V with a dual-engine Centaur upper stage for the CST-100 Starliner.

However, both Boeing and SpaceX still have much work to do, and each needs to fly a successful uncrewed orbital flight test to the ISS and back, before any crews fly anywhere. SpaceX hopes to launch their uncrewed flight test this November, while Boeing is aiming for late this year or early next.

Interestingly, no matter which spacecraft and crew launch first, the first crewed mission will include an astronaut who flew on the final space shuttle in 2011.

The crew for the CST-100 Starliner’s first test flight. They include former STS-126 crewmates Eric Boe (left) and Chris Ferguson (right), joined by “rookie” Nicole Mann. Photo Credit: NASA

Veteran astronaut Eric Boe, who flew shuttle Discovery’s last flight STS-133 and flew shuttle Endeavour STS-126, will launch to space again on the first orbital flight test of Starliner, currently targeting launch in mid-2019. He will be joined by former NASA astronaut turned Boeing commercial test pilot astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded the final shuttle mission—and also flew with Boe on STS-126—together with NASA astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann, who will make her first trip to space.

“The engineer in me always thought if I’m not flying a spaceship, I ought to be part of the team building one,” Ferguson said. “My fingerprints are all over the Starliner and I’m thrilled to get the chance to go back to space on a vehicle that I helped design from the ground up. Riding along with me are all of the members of the Boeing team who have put their hearts and souls into this spacecraft.”

Crewmen for the first piloted Dragon test flight are former NASA Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken (left) and veteran of the final shuttle flight, Doug Hurley. Photo: NASA

Former NASA Chief Astronaut Robert Behnken, who previously flew on Endeavour twice for missions STS-123 and STS-130, will command the first SpaceX Crew Dragon flight test to the ISS, known as “Demo-2”, and will be joined by astronaut Doug Hurley, who previously piloted Endeavour for STS-127 and the final shuttle mission.

That mission, is currently targeting April 2019.

In keeping with Boeing’s flight-test heritage, it was expected from the outset that the first crewed CST-100 Starliner would include an in-house test pilot, together with at least one NASA astronaut. By contrast, SpaceX advised AmericaSpace in 2015 that the organization had “no current plan for a SpaceX pilot or engineer on any of the flights” and, moreover, that it did not have its own “cadre of folks in training or selected”. It is believed that SpaceX originally wanted to fly at least one of its own crew members on the first piloted Crew Dragon, but that NASA opted against this. These decisions appear to be borne out by today’s announcement.

Veteran ISS resident Mike Hopkins (right) and Victor Glover will fly aboard the first Post-Certification Mission (PCM) of the Crew Dragon in late 2019 or early 2020. Photo Credit: NASA

Ferguson, who was a member of NASA’s astronaut corps from June 1998 until his retirement in December 2011, flew three shuttle missions and served a tenure as deputy chief of the corps. He then joined Boeing, assuming a role as director of Commercial Crew Interface in the Space Exploration division and today serves as the company’s director of crew and mission operations. In mid-2014, AmericaSpace drew hints from Ferguson that he may be a contender for the Boeing spot on the first crewed CST-100 Starliner, but it was only last month that the Washington Post definitively identified the former Navy captain and veteran of more than 40 days in space as a crew member.

In addition to the two flight-test crews, NASA also announced U.S. members of the first two PCMs for SpaceX and Boeing. Aboard the first dedicated Crew Dragon will be veteran astronaut Mike Hopkins, who was until earlier this year the assistant to the chief for Commercial Crew, and “rookie” Victor Glover. Meanwhile, aboard the first dedicated Starliner will be seasoned ISS commander and spacewalker Sunita Williams, joined by “rookie” Josh Cassada. Their launches are not expected until the late 2019 or early 2020 timeframe.

 

 

 

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