Innovation on the ISS
On July 8, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis launched from Kennedy Space Center, marking the last time a U.S. astronaut was launched into space from American soil. For the seven years since then, NASA has relied on Russia's pricey Soyuz spacecraft to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
To move beyond reliance on Russian transport, NASA tapped Boeing and SpaceX in 2014 to craft a sequel of sorts to the Space Shuttle: private, Apollo-style “space taxis” built and launched in the United States. Now, we know the names of those launches' first passengers.
At a Friday press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed nine of the astronauts that will make the first four crewed flights of Boeing and SpaceX's spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon.
“This is a big deal for our country, and we want America to know we’re back,” Bridenstine said in a speech. “We’re flying American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”
Ferguson isn't currently a NASA employee, though he served as an astronaut from 1998 to 2011 and commanded the final Space Shuttle mission. Ferguson now works for Boeing and is poised to become the first-ever private company astronaut.
Boe, a veteran NASA astronaut, has logged more than 28 days in space across two Space Shuttle missions. Mann joined the astronaut corps in 2013, and she is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and test pilot. The test launch will be her first trip to space.
“It's absolutely the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Mann. “I'm just grateful to be able to usher in this new era of American spaceflight. As a test pilot, it doesn't get any better than this.”
SpaceX's first test launch will ferry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into space. Both have been in the astronaut corps since 2000; combined, the duo has four Space Shuttle missions and more than 58 days of spaceflight between them.
“The 7,000 women and men of SpaceX understand what a sacred honor this was, for us to be part of this program, and for us to fly you,” said Gwynne Shotwell, the chief operating officer of SpaceX, at the Friday press conference. “Thank you very much—we take it seriously, and we won't let you down.”
In addition to unveiling the test launch rosters, Bridenstine also revealed the crews of each spacecraft's second flight, which will ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
Cassada, a Navy commander and test pilot, joined the astronaut corps in 2013; the launch will be his first. With 322 days in space, Williams is sixth all-time on NASA's spaceflight endurance list and second all-time among female astronauts. No female astronaut has logged more spacewalk time.
“I'm just really excited that we're going to take these spacecraft and show them off to our international partners,” said Williams. “That's going to help all of us understand how to live and work in space.”
“I'm sure there's at least one Russian-language instructor out there who thinks that having me fly in a U.S. vehicle is not a terrible idea,” quipped Cassada.
Glover joined the astronaut corps in 2013; he is a U.S. Navy commander and test pilot with almost 3,000 flight hours logged in more than 40 different aircraft. In 2013 and 2014, Hopkins spent nearly six months aboard the ISS, logging nearly 13 hours of spacewalks.
A New Way Into Space
The announcement marks an important milestone for NASA's Commercial Crew program, which has paid Boeing and SpaceX $6.8 billion since 2014. By naming crews, NASA is signaling its belief that these astronauts will fly sometime soon.
The space agency has reason to be eager. U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) officials have noted that NASA's last Russian ride from the International Space Station returns to Earth in November 2019. After that, the space agency has no guaranteed way to get its astronauts into low-Earth orbit.
NASA's investment also aims to boost private industry, which has flocked into low-Earth orbit in recent years for tourism, the satellite industry, and more. (Read more about private companies' attempts to race to the moon.)
Despite the fanfare around Friday's presentation, the Commercial Crew program has endured years of delays. Originally, both companies were contractually bound to meet all of NASA's requirements in 2017.
Delays are normal, especially when trying to make spacecraft safe and reliable, but the companies' rosy projections despite expected snafus have drawn criticism.
“Both contractors have said that their schedules are aggressive and they set ambitious—rather than realistic—dates, only to frequently delay them,” says Cristina Chaplain, the GAO director who provides oversight for NASA, including the Commercial Crew program.
Boeing is currently working through technical issues with its abort and parachute systems. SpaceX is trying to fix design issues with gas vessels and cracks in its engine turbines, and it's working to ensure that its rocket fueling process—which calls for filling the rockets while astronauts are on board—is sufficiently safe.
Just days before the Friday announcement, a key NASA safety board cautioned that it's too soon to set dates for the companies' test flights. And on Thursday, SpaceNews reported that the companies' timelines would slip three to four more months.
SpaceX will fly an uncrewed test flight in November 2018 and another with astronauts on board in April 2019. Boeing's uncrewed test flight will slip to the end of 2018, and its crewed test will launch in mid-2019.
The companies are running out of buffer. In a July report, the GAO said that NASA predicted the companies would gain full certification around the end of 2019, while acknowledging the two might not be ready until well into 2020. While there's talk of pushing NASA's last Soyuz return to January 2020, the space agency won't extend the Soyuz agreement forever. If any further delays creep up, NASA's astronauts may be temporarily stranded on Earth.
“If neither Boeing nor SpaceX are ready to fly by November 2019, the U.S. risks a gap in access to the ISS,” says Chaplain. “The ISS cannot function without a U.S. presence on board to maintain and operate integral systems.”
Boeing and SpaceX, though, seem keenly aware of the white-hot spotlight on the program and on America's future in low-Earth orbit.
“Thanks to the American public for your patience [and] your dedication for allowing us to finish the job,” said Shotwell. “We're not going to let you down.”