On Friday, NASA announced the names of the astronauts who will be a part of the first flights from U.S. soil since the space shuttle retired in 2011. Among them are two women: Nicole Mann and Sunita Williams.
The crews will fly on spacecraft developed by SpaceX and Boeing, two corporations under contract to provide a taxi-like service to the International Space Station.
During a ceremony at the Johnson Space Center, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine introduced the crews as they came on stage in two groups: one for SpaceX and the other Boeing.
On the first human test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, NASA selected astronauts Eric Boe and Mann to join Boeing executive Chris Ferguson. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley would fly on the first human test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.
On the first operational mission to the International Space Station, Williams and Josh Cassada would fly for Boeing. NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins would fly Dragon’s first operational mission to the space station.
“It’s absolutely an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Mann, who was selected as an astronaut in 2013.
In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX were awarded a combined $6.8 billion in contracts from NASA to develop a spacecraft capable of flying crews to the station, the orbiting laboratory. Since then, they have been in a race to see which company would fly first in what’s become a sort of modern-day space race.
Leading up to the ceremony at the Johnson Space Center, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it was a historic moment for the agency: “We are going to launch American astronauts from American soil. That’s a big deal.”
Boeing and SpaceX have recently said they would conduct their first test flights with astronauts on board by the end of this year, but those flights are now scheduled for 2019.
During Friday’s ceremony, Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, told the crews: “What a sacred honor this was to be part of this program and to fly you. Thank you. We take it very seriously. We won’t let you down.”
SpaceX said it would fly crews by April of next year, while Boeing said only that it would fly NASA’s astronauts by the middle of next year.
Last week, Boeing confirmed that it had a problem with its launch-abort system, which is designed to ferry crews to safety in the event of an emergency. In a call with reporters this week, John Mulholland, Boeing’s program manager, said that several of the valves failed to fully close, resulting in a propellant leak.
He said Boeing has since identified the problem and is working to fix it. “The result is that we’ll have a better and safer spacecraft,” he said.
SpaceX did not give a reason for the delay of its first crewed test flight. But it had been working to resolve an issue with its second stage that caused one of its Falcon 9 rockets to explode while it was being fueled ahead of an engine test.
“Safely and reliably flying commercial crew missions for NASA remains the highest priority for SpaceX,” Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, said in a statement.
U.S. astronauts have had to fly on Russian rockets from a remote launch site in Kazakhstan since the shuttle was retired seven years ago.