NASA announced on Friday the assignments of the first nine astronauts riding commercial spacecraft to the International Space Station, naming five to the first two Boeing flights and four to SpaceX's flights.
The astronauts are a part of NASA's Commercial Crew program, which is the agency's solution to once again launch U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, astronauts have flown aboard Russian Soyuz — at a cost to NASA of more than $70 million per seat.
NASA's new program is competitive, with contracts up for grabs for Boeing to win with its Starliner capsules and SpaceX with its Dragon capsules.
Delays have plagued the program since 2014, when NASA first handed out multi-billion dollar contracts to SpaceX and Boeing. Boeing announced on Wednesday that its first Starliner test flight would be pushed from August to later this year, at the earliest.
Meanwhile, NASA confirmed Thursday that SpaceX's first test flight for Dragon would delay to November. NASA was expected to certify Boeing in December 2019 and SpaceX in January 2020, according to analysis earlier this year, but a GAO report in July says further delays are expected.
Boeing's timeline already causes a one-month gap, at minimum, in NASA's contracts for seats with Russia, and the first launches of Boeing and SpaceX. NASA is considering a number of solutions to resolve the gap, the GAO report said.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine presented the astronauts who will ride on the first four Commercial Crew flights, including three who have never flown to space before. Here are the companies and flights they were assigned to on Friday:
Bob Behnken has flown to space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor twice since joining NASA's astronaut corps in 2000. He is a flight test engineer, as well as U.S. Air Force colonel.
Doug Hurley also joined NASA's astronaut corps in 2000, and was formerly a Marine Corps test pilot. Hurley piloted two of the space shuttles, including the final space shuttle mission in 2011.
Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to fly in Crew Dragon in April 2019, launching on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Nicole Mann test flew Marine Corp F-18 fighter jets before being selected as a NASA astronaut in 2013. Starliner's first crewed flight will be her first trip to space as well.
Chris Ferguson piloted one space shuttle and commanded another two. Ferguson is the only astronaut who is not a active NASA astronaut – he retired from the corps after the shuttle's last flight.
Eric Boe was an U.S. Air Force colonel test pilot before becoming a NASA astronaut in 2000. Boe has piloted two space shuttles.
Mann, Ferguson and Boe are set to launch in Starliner during the middle of next year, lifting off on top of a United Launch Alliance – a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin – Atlas V rocket.
Victor Glover is a Navy commander and test pilot, selected as a NASA astronaut in 2013. His first trip into space will be on Crew Dragon's first full mission.
Mike "Hopper" Hopkins became a NASA astronaut in 2009, following time as a flight test engineer and colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He flew on two shuttle missions.
Suni Williams became a NASA astronaut in 1998, coming to the agency as a Navy captain and test pilot. Williams has spent nearly a year in space, cumulatively, with seven spacewalks over that time.
Josh Cassada is a U.S. Navy commander and test pilot, selected to the NASA astronaut corps in 2013. Cassada's flight on Starliner's first mission will be his first trip to space.
After the announcement, the nine astronauts participated in an "Ask Me Anything" thread on Reddit. Here are some highlights:
"Besides safety, what are the most important things that you wanted improved or implemented into the design for the Dragon and Starliner capsules?"
"Cupholders? But seriously, safety is the most important but a close second is reliability," Hopper said.
"What "updated tech" on these spaceships are you looking forward to most?"
"For me, the revolution in the avionics is incredible. The displays are so much more capable and the vehicle inside is much cleaner with less switched and circuit breakers than what we had to deal with in the space shuttle," Hurley said.
"We're looking for spaceflight to look a lot like flying a commercial airplane. It's safe and reliable, and provides transportation to space instead of another city," Ferguson said.
"How does the comfort of your new vehicle compare to the cramped environment of the [Russian] Soyuz?"
"Soyuz is a great vehicle. However, it is small. Sitting inside the Soyuz for a long time was uncomfortable, because your knees are bent up to your chest. The new spacecraft have more volume inside, which allows your legs to be bent at an angle, similar to when you sit in a chair," Williams said.