Since the end of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the American space agency has relied on Russian rockets and capsules to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station.
This plan, of course, was never ideal, and it was never meant to be permanent.
Even before the end of the shuttle program, NASA got to work to find a replacement. The agency landed on the Commercial Crew program, which would see Boeing and SpaceX build new vehicles that could deliver astronauts to the space station.
Since 2010, that program has inched along, moving ever-closer to crewed and uncrewed test flights.
Today, NASA moved another inch closer.
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.
“This accomplished group of American astronauts, flying on new spacecraft developed by our commercial partners Boeing and SpaceX, will launch a new era of human spaceflight,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.
All the excitement around this announcement needs to be somewhat tempered, however.
The Commercial Crew program, on the whole, has experienced numerous delays and budget shortfalls as Boeing and SpaceX work to bring crewed launches back to the U.S.
Recent delays have pushed back the first flights of the Starliner and crewed Dragon to 2019, with uncrewed test flights hopefully happening in November for SpaceX or late this year, early next year for Boeing.
That said, astronauts, on the whole, are a charming bunch with a whole lot of personality. In light of that, watching them train and then fly these missions over the next year or so should be fun for all involved.
Here’s the group that should lead the human charge back to space from the U.S., with some fun facts from NASA:
Boeing’s first crewed test: mid-2019
Eric Boe: Like many astronauts, Boe became an astronaut after a stint as an Air Force fighter pilot. He has flown to space twice before this, both on space shuttle missions. He was chosen as an astronaut in 2000.
Twitter: @Astro_Boe (but he doesn’t tweet much.)
Chris Ferguson: While Ferguson has been retired from NASA since 2011, he has worked with Boeing’s Starliner program for years, earning him a key post on the first crewed test of the system. Ferguson is the veteran of three space shuttle missions.
Nicole Mann: Mann was chosen as an astronaut in 2013, coming to NASA from the Marine Corps, where she was a Lieutenant Colonel and a test pilot. Mann’s flight with Boeing will be her first to space.
Twitter: @AstroDuke (It’s her call-sign.)
SpaceX’s first crewed test: April 2019
Bob Behnken: Behnken was chosen as an astronaut in 2000 and has been to space twice on two shuttle missions. He has performed six spacewalks.
Doug Hurley: Hurley came to NASA from the Marine Corps in 2000. He flew on two flights of the space shuttle including the final mission, Atlantis’s STS-135.
Boeing’s first official mission to the space station
Josh Cassada: Coming to NASA after a career as a test pilot in the Navy, Cassada was chosen as an astronaut in 2013. Boeing’s first operational mission to the space station will mark his first time in space.
Suni Williams: Williams was chosen as an astronaut in 1998 after a career in the Navy. She has spent a grand total of 322 days in space including a stint commanding the space station and performing seven spacewalks.
SpaceX’s first official mission to the space station
Victor Glover: Glover was selected as an astronaut in 2013 after a career in the Navy as a test pilot. SpaceX’s first operational flight to the space station will also be Glover’s first flight to space.
Mike Hopkins: Hopkins became an astronaut candidate in 2009 and has since spent 166 days on the space station over the course of two missions. He was a flight test engineer in the Air Force before coming over to NASA.