Louis-area native among astronauts picked for SpaceX launch

NASA assigns astronauts to first commercial crew missions

NASA on Friday announced the first astronauts who will fly into space on US -made commercial spacecraft - which will be the agency's first manned missions in years.

On Friday, NASA announced the astronauts that will fly on the first flights of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's crewed Dragon capsule.

"With 40 years' difference in avionics and technology, we have squeezed a lot more into a smaller ship", said Chris Ferguson, who now works directly for Boeing on its Starliner program and who commanded the very last space shuttle flight, in 2011.

The new spaceflight capability provided by Boeing and SpaceX will allow NASA to maintain a crew of seven astronauts on the space station, thereby maximizing scientific research that leads to breakthroughs and also aids in understanding and mitigating the challenges of long-duration spaceflight. The agency has contracted six missions, with as many as four astronauts per mission, for each company. NASA retired its space shuttle fleet that year, and started sending astronauts to the International Space Station aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost of $81 million (U.S.) per seat. Each astronaut flew on two shuttle missions, including Hurley on the final shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011.

Behnken, Hurley, Boe and Mann are Nasa's first astronauts to be named to the test flights of new USA spacecraft since the March 1978 announcement of the space shuttle's first orbital flight test crews.

The space station's operational lifespan has already been extended to reach 2025, though the White House recently began discussing the idea of turning the aging station over to commercial investors who might be interested in continuing the ISS's run of maintaining a continuously manned presence in space for almost two decades.

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Five of those astronauts flew aboard the United States' last set of spacecraft to travel to the International Space Station (ISS), the space shuttles.

"Rockets are fun. I'll be ready, I can't wait", Williams said in an interview posted Friday on the International Space Station Facebook page.

The Starliner spacecraft is being outfitted at the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, according to NASA. The astronauts are (L to R): Victor Glover, Robert Behnken, Michael Hopkins, Douglas Hurley, Eric Boe, Sunita Williams, Christopher Ferguson, Josh Cassada, and Nicole Mann. He will be joined by Victor Glover, a Navy commander who will be making his first trip into space. This will be her first trip to space.

Both companies will also conduct abort system test flights to ensure the astronauts can safely escape should their rockets go awry. SpaceX is targeting April 2019 for its crewed demonstration flight, Demo-2. Sometimes called the "Commercial Crew Cadre", those astronauts are seasoned veterans who've worked closely with Boeing and SpaceX on their new spacecraft and systems over the past three years.

SpaceX will launch from Kennedy Space Center on board Falcon 9 rockets while Boeing will send its crew capsule up from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets. Hopkins logged 166 days aboard the space station in 2014. Crew members have worked years with companies to get here and they said they can not wait for the flights to begin next year.

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