Not only will the manned test flights be the first time astronauts fly to the space station aboard commercial spacecraft, but they will also be the first launch of "American astronauts on American-made spacecraft from American soil" since NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011, the space agency said. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the US has been relying on Russian Soyuz rockets, launched from Kazakhstan, to get astronauts to the ISS. The astronauts will travel in the new Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon. He flew aboard three shuttle missions, including the program's final mission in 2011. On Friday, the space agency introduced the nine-member team tasked with making the first flights.
Some background: The last time humans went to space from the U.S. was July 2011, aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended NASA pursue a backup plan for getting astronauts to the ISS, as its contract with Russian Federation to send them to the station via Soyuz launches in Kazakhstan ends at the close of 2019. Ever since her selection as an astronaut (1998), Williams has been twice aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and also held record for total spacewalks by a woman and most spacewalk time for a woman.
"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.
Both vehicles will launch from Florida - Boeing's Starliner, boosted by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and SpaceX's Dragon from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.
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. Boe was selected by NASA to be an astronaut in 2000. She has logged 322 days in space.
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Then, in July 2015, NASA offered another nugget: Four of its astronauts had been tapped to start training on SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner. Boeing's uncrewed test flight will slip to the end of 2018, and its crewed test will launch in mid-2019. In any case, SpaceX is now the presumed leader of the race to capture the flag left on the station by the final space shuttle crew-a flag that has been waiting to return to Earth for eight years and counting.
Boeing is now working through technical issues with its abort and parachute systems. But it had been working to resolve an issue with its second stage that caused one of its Falcon 9 rockets to explode while it was being fueled ahead of an engine test.
After a seven-year hiatus, American astronauts will once again go to space from the U.S.
But NASA's options may be limited by the worldwide agreements that established the station in 1998. NASA plans the first crewed test for April 2019. "We're not going to let you down".
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.