NASA names astronauts for first manned US space launches since 2011

On Friday, the space agency plans to announce crews for the first flights of SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner.

"NASA's Commercial Crew Program will return human spaceflight launches to USA soil, providing safe, reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit on systems that meet our safety and mission requirements", said the official blog.

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.

On the test flight for the Starliner will be: Eric Boe, a former space shuttle pilot who retired from the Air Force; Christopher Ferguson, a Boeing astronaut who left NASA in 2011; and Lt. Col. Nicole Mann of the Marine Corps. NASA also said SpaceX will launch an uncrewed flight test in November, with Boeing not expected to do that until late in 2018 or in the early part of next year.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon space capsule, which will make a trial trip attached to a Falcon rocket launched from Florida, will have a crew of two: Doug Hurley, who piloted both the Endeavor and the Atlantis, and Bob Behnken, who has six space trips on his resume. "Our commitment has always been to provide NASA and those crews the highest level of mission assurance", he said in the statement. "It will be thrilling to see our astronauts lift off from American soil, and we can't wait to see them aboard the International Space Station". He was selected as an astronaut in 2000 and piloted space shuttle Endeavour for the STS-126 mission and Discovery on its final flight, STS-133.

Veteran station flight engineer Mike Hopkins will be accompanied by rookie astronaut Victor Glover on the Crew Dragon's first operational flight to the station. The agency landed on the Commercial Crew program, which would see Boeing and SpaceX build new vehicles that could deliver astronauts to the space station.

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The announcement is a big deal because the last American crew-carrying spacecraft - NASA's fleet of four space shuttle orbiters - retired in July 2011. The test flight with crew is scheduled for mid-2019.

Additional crew members will be assigned by NASA's global partners at a later date.

SpaceX said it would fly crews by April.

Four of the eight astronauts will nearly certainly be Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley, and Sunita "Suni" Williams.

The first Boeing trip to the orbiting outpost includes Josh Cassada, who has never been in space before, and Suni Williams, who is one of the most experienced American astronauts in history, having spent a cumulative 321 days in orbit through her career. While both companies had recently said they would conduct their first test flights with astronauts on board by the end of this year, those flights are now scheduled for 2019. While she was there in 2007, she completed the Boston Marathon - on a treadmill - in 4 hours 24 minutes, marking the first time an entrant had finished the race from orbit.

The Starliner will launch aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Since her selection as an astronaut in 1998, she has spent 322 days aboard the International Space Station for Expeditions 14/15 and Expeditions 32/33, commanded the space station and performed seven spacewalks.

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