NASA announced Friday a mix of spaceflight veterans and rookie astronauts who will launch on the first flights of new Boeing and SpaceX commercial spaceships starting as soon as next spring, several months later than previously scheduled.
NASA also unveiled part of the crews who will ride the CST-100 and Crew Dragon's first regular crew rotation flights, called "post-certification" missions by the space agency and its contractors. On the right, NASA astronauts conduct a fully-suited exercise in Boeing's CST-100 Starliner mock-up trainer in early May at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Assuming that test is successful, Boeing would launch the Starliner's first crew to the space station aboard yet another Starliner, Spacecraft 2, a month later.
NASA's schedule for Starliner flights confirmed what a Boeing executive said a day earlier: The first uncrewed mission to the station (Boeing Orbital Flight Test) would take place in late 2018 or early 2019, and the first crewed mission (Boeing Crew Flight Test) would follow five to six months later.
NASA had originally expected the companies to have their spacecraft ready for missions to the International Space Station by the end of a year ago, but neither were able to meet that target. Since then, NASA has been forced to rely exclusively on Russia's increasingly expensive Soyuz spaceships to get to the International Space Station (ISS), in which the United States government has invested about $100 billion.
Boeing has already identified the problems, and "our team is off fixing those problems", Mulholland said.
SpaceX, however, did move up the uncrewed test flight of its Dragon spacecraft from December to November of this year.
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SpaceX carried out a pad abort test of its Crew Dragon vehicle in May 2015.
American astronauts haven't launched from the US since 2011, and the first commercial company to make that happen first will undoubtedly receive accolades.
Former shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, who helmed the final flight of the shuttle Atlantis in 2011, will lead a three-person crew on the first piloted mission of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule.
Last week, Boeing confirmed that it had a problem with its launch abort system, which is created to ferry crews to safety in the event of an emergency.
During the manned tests, the astronauts will be able to use the displays inside the spacecraft, communicate with mission control and practise manual controls during flight.
In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office said that further delays in NASA's so-called "Commercial Crew" program could "disrupt access to" the space station, which would be an enormous embarrassment for NASA after investing about $100 billion to build and operate it.
"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.