Four veteran astronauts have been selected to train for launch aboard new commercial crew capsules being built by Boeing and SpaceX that are intended to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station starting in 2017, NASA announced Thursday.
Station veteran Sunita Williams, along with shuttle veterans Robert Behnken, Eric Boe and Douglas Hurley, will work with both companies as they develop the new ferry ships and will be candidates for initial test flights.
“It’s really been the dream of all of us to participate in the test of a new vehicle, and a vehicle like a spacecraft is probably the gem, if you will, of a career,” Behnken said. “I would have been embarrassed as a test pilot school graduate to not have jumped at the opportunity, if it was offered to me, to fly a new spacecraft. Hopefully, I’ll get that chance soon.”
Said Hurley: “To be part of a new test program … is extremely exciting. The challenge from a test pilot perspective is great, and I’m just looking forward to (getting) from today all the way up to the space station.”
Boeing holds a $4.2 billion NASA contract to develop its CST-100 capsule, a spacecraft designed to carry at least four astronauts. The CST-100 will be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
SpaceX holds a $2.6 billion contract to build a human-rated version of the Dragon capsule currently used to carry cargo to the space station. Like the CST-100, the piloted version of the Dragon will carry a crew of at least four but will fly atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.
The contracts call for at least one piloted test flight with at least one NASA astronaut on board “to verify the fully-integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit and dock to the space station, as well as validate all systems perform as expected,” NASA said in a statement.
Boeing is expected to send a company pilot aloft with a NASA crewmate for the CST-100’s first test flight. Company officials have not said who might be on board, but many believe it likely will be Chris Ferguson, commander of the final shuttle mission, who now spearheads Boeing’s commercial crew program.
SpaceX does not currently plan to fly a company representative on the initial test flight of its Dragon capsule. Instead, two of the astronauts named Thursday are expected to be aboard.
All four astronauts have extensive flight test experience. Williams, a Naval Academy graduate and military helicopter pilot, has logged more than 3,000 hours flying more than 30 different types of aircraft. She also logged 322 days aboard the International Space Station during two long-duration stays, including more than 50 hours of spacewalk time.
Hurley is a former Marine colonel with more than 4,500 hours flying time in a variety of high-performance aircraft. He spent more than 28 days in space during two shuttle flights and flew with Ferguson as pilot of the final shuttle mission in 2011.
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SOURCE: CBS News, William Harwood