Last Friday we made a huge step toward ending those trips to Russia to send American astronauts into space. The astronauts for the first commercial crewed space flights since the end of the Space Shuttle era seven years ago have been announced!
We’re finally getting serious about ending our dependency on Russian spacecraft to ferry people to and from the International Space Station (ISS), and we’re finally regaining the capability to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. At 20 million bucks a pop those rides on the Soyuz don’t come cheap, and of course, our own launches won’t exactly be a bargain, but at least the money is spent right here, going to U.S. companies and helping local economies.
A group of nine astronauts has been announced who will crew the first flights into LEO (that’s space-speak for Low Earth Orbit) and the ISS on both the Boeing Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. Eight of those astronauts are active NASA employees, the last one is a former NASA astronaut who now works for Boeing, so it all stays in the family for now. While the diversity balance is decidedly lop-sided (only two of the nine are women, and only two are non-Caucasian), at this time we are definitely delighted to have a new group of heroes to cheer on. Several of them are familiar faces — and Sunita “Suni” Williams stands out among them. She’s already a veteran of spaceflight, with 321 days of residency on the ISS in two separate missions. It will be such a thrill to see this fantastic role model of an astronaut head back out into space!
Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will fly on the first crewed Dragon spacecraft, launching from the same launch pad (39A at Kennedy Space Center) — the same place where Hurley piloted the last Space Shuttle mission. Christopher Ferguson, the ex-astronaut turned Boeing executive, will be joined by NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Eric Boe on the first crewed Boeing Starliner flight, launching from pad 41. It will be Mann’s first trip into space.
After those two test flights two crews will launch on trips to the ISS – Suni Williams and Josh Cassada will fly the Starliner, and Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins will travel aboard the Dragon. They will be joined by other crew members from Russia and other International Space Agencies, which will be announced at a later date. And after that, we’re hopefully done with the trips to Russia for good. Of course, Russia will continue to send Soyuz craft to the ISS for their own cosmonauts, as well as members of the European Space Agency and others.
Of course, none of these flights will happen until uncrewed test flights have been completed. Late this year or early next year human-rated but unscrewed spacecraft will be sent into orbit, loaded with instrumentation to document the space worthiness of both craft. That’s quite different from the Space Shuttle days, where the very first launch was crewed with John Young and Robert Crippen. The Apollo missions by contrast also had unscrewed test flights before astronauts were allowed on board.
Until then, U.S. astronauts have to keep hitching rides on the Russian Soyuz craft for uninterrupted service to the ISS, but the end of those trips is now within reach. Since the new spacecraft will carry four passengers each the crew total on the ISS will increase to seven instead of the previous six, so that research opportunities on the ISS can be maximized.
Of course, commercial launches also open the door for non-space agency passengers — people with the necessary time to train for a space mission, and the funds to be able to afford them. Most of us won’t ever be in that elite group of people, but we’ve got to start somewhere, right? While private passengers have gone into orbit before we hope that this will now be the norm rather than an occasional exception. It’s but one small step to making spaceflight accessible to people like you and me years down the road.
In the meantime, we’ll keep our fingers crossed for the unscrewed missions and hope that all goes well so that we can soon again watch crewed launches from US soil, while the nine first passengers will go through intensive training at various NASA, SpaceX and Boeing facilities. At some point in the not too distant future, most of the ISS and LEO traffic will be handled by commercial operators only while NASA will shift their focus to missions going beyond Earth. Among other places, this means asteroid missions and missions to Mars!
Learn more about the newly selected astronaut teams at https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-assigns-crews-to-first-test-flights-missions-on-commercial-spacecraft.
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA for many years. She can be reached at email@example.com.