The U.S. space agency NASA on Friday introduced the nine astronauts who will ride the first commercial space capsules into orbit next year.
The move marks a significant shift in the U.S. space program, which will now combine NASA-trained astronauts with private sector space capsules. The capsules, made by SpaceX and Boeing, will ferry the astronauts and cargo back and forth to the International Space Station.
Since NASA’s space shuttle program was shut down in 2011, it has had to rely on Russia to fly astronauts to the space station.
“For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a ceremony at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The nine astronauts — seven men and two women — waved and pumped their fists into the air as they appeared on stage to cheers from the crowd. All but three of the astronauts are space flight veterans.
In 2014, SpaceX and Boeing received contracts for $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively, to develop space capsules that can ferry astronauts to and from the space station.
The two companies are planning for a test flight of their capsules by the end of this year or early next year, with the first crews hoping to fly from Cape Canaveral, Florida, by next spring or summer.
After NASA and SpaceX successfully completed a launch escape demonstration of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket, Elon Musk said that his aerospace company aims to send NASA astronauts to space between April and June this year.
This was the final major flight test of the spacecraft before it begins carrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) under NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme, the US space agency said in a statement on Sunday.
With this test now complete, the next big flight of the Crew Dragon will have people on board: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
“We’re highly confident that the hardware will be ready in Q1, most likely at the end of February but no later than March. And we think it appears probable that the first crewed launch would occur in the second quarter,” said Musk after the successful uncrewed test of its Crew Dragon capsule’s in-flight launch escape capabilities.
Musk said that if all goes well, the first crewed flight on the Crew Dragon could take place in the second quarter of this year.
“This critical flight test puts us on the cusp of returning the capability to launch astronauts in American spacecraft on American rockets from American soil,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We are thrilled with the progress NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme is making and look forward to the next milestone for Crew Dragon.”
As part of the test on Sunday, SpaceX configured Crew Dragon to trigger a launch escape about 1.5 minutes after liftoff. All major functions were executed, including separation, engine firings, parachute deployment and landing. Crew Dragon splashed down at 10:38 am just off the Florida coast in the Atlantic Ocean.
“As far as we can tell thus far, it’s a picture perfect mission. It went as well as one can possibly expect,” said Musk. “This is a reflection of the dedication and hard work of the SpaceX and NASA teams to achieve this goal. Obviously, I’m super fired up. This is great.”
Prior to the flight test, teams completed launch day procedures for the first crewed flight test, from suit-up to launch pad operations. The joint teams now will begin the full data reviews that need to be completed prior to NASA astronauts flying the system during SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission. “The past few days have been an incredible experience for us,” said astronaut Doug Hurley.
“Today, we watched the demonstration of a system that we hope to never use, but can save lives if we ever do. It took a lot of work between NASA and SpaceX to get to this point, and we can’t wait to take a ride to the space station soon,” he said in the NASA statement. (IANS)