Since the end of NASA's space shuttle program in 2011, the American space agency has relied on Russian rockets and capsules to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station.
Crewed test flights will likely occur next spring, with Chris Ferguson, a Boeing vice president who was the commander of the last shuttle mission, Eric Boe, a former shuttle pilot, and Nicole Aunapu Mann, a former Navy pilot who will be making her first space flight, onboard the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.
NASA has been paying billions of dollars to SpaceX and Boeing to develop the crew capsules to pick up where the shuttles left off, while also paying billions for cargo deliveries to the space station by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. Additional crew members will be assigned by NASA's global partners in the space station at a later date, the agency said.
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Meanwhile, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended NASA pursue a backup plan for getting astronauts to the ISS, as its contract with Russian Federation to send them to the station via Soyuz launches in Kazakhstan ends at the end of 2019.
Ferguson, who has been involved from the start in the Starliner's development, flew three shuttle missions as a Nasa astronaut. Boe piloted two shuttle flights. They were two of the four astronauts selected by NASA in July 2015 to be trained to fly commercial crew missions.
Although there has been talk of turning the International Space Station over to commercial parties upon the end of it's projected service life in 2025, a recent audit of that strategy carried out and released by NASA's Office of the Inspector General seems to indicate that such an extension of the ISS lifespan is unlikely. "To meet NASA's requirements, the commercial providers must demonstrate that their systems are ready to begin regular flights to the space station".
Astronauts, from left to right, Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins, Robert Behnken, Douglas Hurley, Nicole Mann, Christopher Ferguson, Eric Boe, Josh Cassada and Sunita Williams. He will be joined by veteran astronaut Suni Williams, who has spent more than 50 hours on spacewalks and ran the first marathon in space on board the ISS in 2007.
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Prior to their maiden crewed missions, both Boeing and SpaceX plan uncrewed test flights in late 2018 or early 2019.
NASA awaits the completion of both companies' test flights before certifying either safe for use to return astronauts on low-Earth-orbit missions. But while the newly announced crews are excited to once again launch from Florida instead of Kazakhstan, they aren't very nostalgic for the hardware of the shuttles themselves. Boeing's and SpaceX's commercial spacecraft may also open the space station - and more broadly, Earth orbit - to more privately-funded visitors and spaceflight participants from countries that do not have their own domestic crewed spacecraft and rockets. Mann's flight with Boeing will be her first to space.
The Starliner will launch aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
SpaceX is shooting for a test flight without passengers in November and a crew flight in April.
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The contracts for travel to the International Space Station were awarded in 2014.