NASA assigns astronauts to SpaceX, Boeing test flights

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The space agency announced that the nine astronauts will launch on the first crewed test flights and missions of new commercial spacecraft built and operated by The Boeing Company and SpaceX.

All the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have been taken there on Russian Soyuz spacecraft since the retirement of the American shuttle in 2011.

To certify that the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner are ready to become NASA's new go-to space taxis, SpaceX and Boeing are each planning three test missions.

"For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil", said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the event attended by several members of Congress and other NASA and industry officials.

Astronauts, from left to right, Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins, Robert Behnken, Douglas Hurley, Nicole Mann, Christopher Ferguson, Eric Boe, Josh Cassada and Sunita Williams.

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The Government Accountability Office said last month that launch plans could be delayed due to incomplete safety measures and accountability issues in NASA's commercial crew program.

In a ceremony at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the space agency revealed nine astronauts assigned to the first four crewed flights of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsules.

Lawmakers in Congress, however, insisted that NASA still needed to develop its own rocket and space capsule, called the Space Launch System.

The astronauts named on Friday will be carried aloft aboard spacecraft developed by entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX and Boeing Co, crewing first the test flights, and then missions involving both Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon. A recent abort test by Boeing resulted in leaking engine fuel. Just as in the past, all human launches will originate here on the space coast.

The first flight is expected sometime next year. It won't be the first time SpaceX trounces Boeing.

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If those flights are successful, the companies will be certified by NASA for crew rotation missions.

The two pairs of Nasa crewmates will fly to the station with Russian cosmonauts and worldwide astronauts to be announced at a later date. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the USA has been relying on Russian Soyuz rockets, launched from Kazakhstan, to get astronauts to the ISS. What is not known is who gets to fly on which company's spacecraft, and on which flight they get to launch.

SpaceX did not give a reason for the delay of its first crewed test flight. The cargo missions started in 2012.

As for being the only non-NASA guy on board, Ferguson explained later during a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" program that Boeing always uses company test pilots for first flights "and the Starliner is no exception".

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.

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