The space agency held a press conference Friday morning at Johnson Space Center where it introduced the first crews that will fly aboard commercial spacecraft to the International Space Station. As NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine introduced the seven men and two women who will crew the first flights of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, he made repeated references to American astronauts being launched from American soil aboard American-made spacecraft. The conference was held in an auditorium with a huge American flag as the backdrop with uplifting music pulsing in the background and hundreds of employees, dignitaries, politicians, schoolchildren, and members of the press waiving little American flags and cheering loudly with each introduction and every inspirational statement made.
It made me proud to be an American, and I think the song by Lee Greenwood was the only thing missing from the event.
It was evidentially clear that having to send American astronauts into space on Russian ships since the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011 has rubbed NASA the wrong way. It didn’t fit into the NASA culture that was birthed in the Space Race of the 1950s and ’60s. Of course, the rock(et) star introductions and party atmosphere indicates the American space agency has had a big change in culture since the days when seven staid men in suits and ties were paraded before reporters and introduced as America’s first astronauts 59 years ago.
Although they’re far removed from the original Mercury 7, the nine astronauts introduced Friday include three rookies and another first in American spaceflight history. Former NASA astronaut Christopher Ferguson was introduced as a Boeing astronaut and was the only one of the nine to have the Boeing logo on his blue jumpsuit where the others had the NASA logo. All nine are military veterans with four from the Navy, three from the Air Force, and two Marines.
The astronauts have been assigned to four flights, one test flight for each vehicle and one mission to the ISS for each vehicle. Three astronauts will crew the Boeing Starliner test flight. They are:
Air Force Col. Eric Boe of Miami and Atlanta who piloted space shuttles Endeavour and Discovery.
Navy Capt. Chris Ferguson of Philadelphia, who piloted Atlantis and commanded Endeavour and Atlantis again on the final space shuttle mission.
Marine Lt. Col Nicole Aunapu Mann of California who is a test pilot and a rookie astronaut.
The Crew Dragon test flight crew includes:
Air Force Col. Robert Behnken of St. Ann, Mo., who flew twice on Endeavour and has performed six spacewalks.
Marine Col. Douglas Hurley of Apalachin, N.Y., who piloted Endeavour and also Atlantis on the final shuttle mission.
Astronauts assigned to the first Boeing Starliner mission include:
Navy Cmdr. Josh Cassada of White Bear Lake, Minn. He is a test pilot and a rookie astronaut.
Navy Capt. Sunita Williams of Euclid, Ohio, and Needham, Mass., who spent 322 days aboard the International Space Station for Expeditions 14/15 and Expeditions 32/33. She commanded the space station and performed seven spacewalks.
The astronauts on the first mission of the Crew Dragon to the ISS are:
Navy Cmdr. Victor Glover of Pomona, Calif., who is a test pilot and a rookie astronaut.
Air Force Col. Michael Hopkins of Missouri. He has spent 166 days on the International Space Station with Expeditions 37/38, and conducted two spacewalks.
The significance of the press conference was two-fold. First, as was so frequently mentioned, it marks the return of America to the human spaceflight business. Secondly, these crews will be the first in history to fly to space on commercial spacecraft. Only three governments – the United States, Russia, and China – have put humans into space. Boeing and SpaceX will be the first private companies to accomplish the task. The first flights should take space sometime next year.
NASA, meanwhile, is still without a spaceship of its own to fly humans beyond the atmosphere. It is designing the Orion capsule, which will take people to the moon and beyond, but it isn’t ready yet and the timeline for getting back to the moon is sometime in the mid-2020s.
Bridenstine noted that, “Only seven astronauts in history have been the first to fly on a brand new U.S. spacecraft.” He asked Mann and Hurley how they felt about it.
“It’s absolutely an opportunity of a lifetime,” Mann said. “It’s going to be a proud moment for America… As a test pilot it doesn’t get any better than this.”
“That first flight is something you dream about as a test pilot,” Hurley said. “You don’t think it’s ever going to happen to you but it looks like it might.”
Behnken noted that flying the Crew Dragon will be an upgrade from the shuttle.
“The way we described the space shuttle, there are about 3,000 switches inside and there was no situation the astronauts couldn’t make worse,” he said. “We’re grateful the next vehicle we’re going to fly on is going to be a little bit more automated, have quite a bit less switches… It’s like a glass cockpit; it’s like flying an iPhone, right. It is absolutely like flying an iPhone.”