Sunita Williams among 9 astronauts named by NASA for first commercial flights

Meet the astronauts set to become NASA's first Commercial Crew. From left to right Sunita Williams Josh Cassada Eric Boe Nicole Mann Christopher Ferguson Douglas Hurley Robert Behnken Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover. Image NASA

Boeing and Space Adventures, the USA company that arranged space tourist flights on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, have a partnership that could allow paying passengers to ride in a fifth seat on CST-100 missions for shorter-duration missions.

NASA named the crews for the first four flights planned with commercial partners Boeing and SpaceX at a Friday news conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Both spacecraft are now undergoing hardware tests, with final processing ahead as launch dates hover closer.

The event was webcast live and was presided by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "We congratulate all the astronauts chosen to fly to the space station on commercially developed systems".

She was the first person to run a marathon in space, cranking out the miles on a treadmill in the space station while the Boston Marathon was being run on Earth in April 2007.

52-year-old Williams will be accompanied by Josh Cassada, 45, on NASA's first contracted Starliner mission.

This crew is made up of three astronauts: Eric Boe, who was the pilot of the space shuttle Endeavor; Chris Ferguson, who took part in the last launch; and rookie Nicole A. Mann. Amid the closure of the space shuttle program and beginning of commercial crew operations, NASA's crew members have and are continuing to launch to the space station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Mann is a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and pilot of the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet, while Boe is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who was a test pilot on the Boeing F-15. It's going to be a proud moment for America.

"I'm just grateful to help usher in this new era of American spaceflight", Ferguson told the crowd. The astronauts were selected for test flights, scheduled to occur in 2019, and for the first formal missions to follow.

Boeing's Starliner will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The ISS has been, is and will remain critical for NASA's work on long-duration spaceflight as well as missions related to the Moon, Mars and other planets. He will be joined by Mike Hopkins, a veteran astronaut with more than 160 days at the ISS.

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SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell took a photo of the astronauts before assuring them: "We won't let you down". No female astronaut has logged more spacewalk time.

"For astronauts getting ready to be assigned a flight, I really look towards the Swiss Army knife if you will". The first full mission will send first-time astronaut Josh Cassada into space alongside Sunita Willians, who has spent 322 days aboard the space station.

Both vehicles are capable of reaching the ISS autonomously, and will do so and return to Earth before humans climb aboard.

The astronauts named today (see the full list below) are tasked with those missions, all four of which are slated to happen sometime in 2019.

The space agency has reason to be eager.

Both Boeing and SpaceX are also working with Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas company that plans to launch private space stations into orbit, to be leased to nations or companies.

Most have previous experience in orbit.

"This was above and beyond the NASA requirement in the contract", said NASA Kennedy Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders.

Delays are normal, especially when trying to make spacecraft safe and reliable, but the companies' rosy projections despite expected snafus have drawn criticism.

Meet the astronauts set to become NASA's first Commercial Crew. Boeing said earlier this week it would carry out a test flight of the Starliner vehicle without humans later this year or in early 2019, after it suffered an issue with the capsule's launch abort system during a test in New Mexico in June, according to SpaceNews.

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