NASA Selects Four Astronauts to Fly Commercial Crew Missions

NASA Selects Four Astronauts to Fly Commercial Crew Missions

NASA announced today the names of four astronauts it has selected to be the first to fly on the commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX.   The three men and one woman all are spaceflight veterans.  NASA hopes Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s crew version of Dragon (“Crew Dragon”) will be ready to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017.

The four NASA astronauts are:

  • Robert Behnken, who flew on two space shuttle missions:  STS-123 in 2008 and STS-130 in 2010.  He has a total of 29 days in space, including 37 hours on six spacewalks.
  • Eric Boe flew on STS-126 in 2008 and STS-133 in 2011.  He has more than 28 days in space.
  • Douglas Hurley flew on STS-127 in 2009 and STS-135 (the final shuttle mission) in 2011.  He has more than 28 days in space.
  • Sunita Williams, a veteran of two long-duration ISS missions (December 2006-June 2007 and July-November 2012) totaling 322 days in space.  On her second mission, she was the commander of the ISS.  She holds the record for total cumulative spacewalk time for a woman — 50 hours 40 minutes — over seven spacewalks.

They will train to fly on both commercial spacecraft, which are being developed under a public private partnership (PPP) between the companies and the government.  Boeing and SpaceX were selected for the final phase of the program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP), last fall.   Their contracts with NASA require them to fly at least one crewed flight test with at least one NASA astronaut to the ISS to verify that the system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the ISS.  To meet that requirement, the companies must provide the requisite training for the crews.

SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk said last summer that SpaceX does not plan to have any astronauts of its own and only astronauts selected by NASA will fly to the ISS on Crew Dragon. (NASA is responsible for getting not only its own astronauts, but those of the non-Russian ISS partners — Japan, Canada and Europe — to and from the ISS under the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the program.)  Boeing’s John Elbon, vice president and general manager for space exploration, said in April that Boeing plans to fly one NASA astronaut and one Boeing test pilot on its test flight.

NASA continues to try to convince Congress to provide full funding for the commercial crew program so American companies can launch American astronauts on American systems from American soil by 2017.  The United States has not been able to launch anyone into space since it terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.  It pays Russia to launch crews to the ISS and bring them home.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden repeatedly says that if Congress had fully funded the program in the past, the systems would be flying this year instead of 2017.

NASA is requesting $1.244 billion for commercial crew in the FY2016 budget now before Congress.  The House approved $1.000 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $900 million, so they clearly are not yet convinced.  While there is broad agreement that the United States should be able to launch its own astronauts and should spend its money supporting the U.S., not Russian, economy, many in Congress remain skeptical that the market for sending people into space is sufficiently substantial to keep two companies in business without significant ongoing government support.  The idea is that the government should be a customer, but not the only customer, of these systems.  Some also argue that NASA should fund only one company, not two, but NASA insists that it needs competition to keep prices down and redundancy in case one of the systems suffers a major failure.

The failure of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on June 28 may buttress NASA’s redundancy argument.  How SpaceX recovers from the accident, and whether the government is expected to pay any of the recovery costs, may factor into the skeptics’ argument.   The Falcon 9 was launching a cargo mission to the ISS that day — no people were aboard — when the rocket failed 139 seconds after launch.   SpaceX is still trying to determine what went wrong.

The SpaceX and Boeing capsules will allow NASA to send four people to the ISS at a time.  Added to three that can travel to the ISS on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, the typical ISS crew complement could increase from six to seven. NASA emphasizes that the extra crew person can devote his or her time to research rather than maintenance tasks that currently occupy a large part of the crew’s time.   Research is the raison d’être of the ISS, so additional crew time for research is considered very valuable.

A three-day conference in Boston this week organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) focused on ISS research — results from experiments already conducted and what’s coming up in the future.  

NASA has consistently said for the past several years that it hopes commercial crew will be operational by 2017, but at the AAS conference on Tuesday, NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini said NASA looks forward to adding a fourth crew member to the ISS complement in 2018, not 2017, suggesting a delay. 

The ISS partners — the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency — are currently planning to operate the ISS through 2020, though NASA is trying to convince them to extend it to 2024.  How many NASA astronauts will have a chance to fly to ISS on the commercial crew vehicles is an open question.

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