Commercial Crew for SpaceX and Boeing Named

Astronauts named for both Boeing and SpaceX test and operational flights.

NASA officially announced the brave men and women who will not only fly aboard the first flight of these two private space companies capsules, but the base crew for the first post-certification flights to the International Space Station.  This announcement marks a milestone because it will indicate the return to returning launch capability back to the United States for our astronauts since July 2011 at the conclusion of the Space Shuttle program.  The message of launching “American astronauts on American vehicles from American soil” was repeated numerous times during the announcement from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein.  This article will focus on the two Boeing flights, the Space X article will soon follow.

From left to right: Eric Boe, Nicole Aunapu Mann, and Chris Ferguson will be crew of first test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.

The first Boeing unmanned test flight is now scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019.  These dates are not set because of an incident that involved a stuck valve that lead to a leak of hypergolic fuel (highly explosive and corrosive) during a test back in June.  Once the issue is corrected, those dates will be published.  As of now, mid-2019 is when two men and one woman will strap inside of the Starliner spacecraft on top of an Atlas 5 rocket.

The first crew member for this first test flight is Eric Boe.  Born in Miami but grew up in Atlanta, Ga, he served in the Air Force and flew on two Shuttle missions after being selected as an astronaut in 2000.  His first mission was on Space Shuttle Endeavour in November 2008 on STS-126 (whom he was a crew member with fellow crew member Ferguson who was the Commander of that flight).   His second flight was aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on her final flight to space in February 2011 on STS-133.  Both of his missions were to the International Space Station.

Joining Boe on this flight is Chris Ferguson, former NASA astronaut turned Boeing exec and astronaut.  Known as Fergy, his first trip into space was aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis in September 2006 as Pilot on STS-115, that flight resumed construction of the International Space Station after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident in February 2003.  His next flight he would become Commander of Space Shuttle Endeavour in November 2008 on STS-126.  His final Shuttle flight was on the final Space Shuttle mission in July 2011 on Space Shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-135.  After the close of the Shuttle Program, he went on to Boeing where he has been very involved with the design and build of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.

The final crew member on this first manned test flight is California native Nicole Aunapu Mann.  She is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps and this will be her first trip into space.

Artist depiction of Starliner launching atop of its version of the Atlas 5 rocket.  Google Images

The launch vehicle that will be used is the Atlas 5 rocket using the 422 configuration.  It will fly with 2 engines on the Centaur upper stage and 2 solid rocket boosters.  This configuration will give the rocket plenty of performance margin to lift the capsule and it’s precious human cargo into orbit.  The Atlas 5 has been human-rated and a very thorough review of the rocket and upgrades to make the rocket safe with making critical systems more redundant have been in the works for years.  The Atlas 5 rocket will launch from Pad 41 that is across the river from where Space X will launch their manned Dragon capsule on top of their own Falcon 9 Block 5 vehicle at Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.

Crew practice emergency escape from Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  In background at right, Launch Pad 39A can be seen where Crew Dragon (SpaceX) will launch.  google images
Joe Cassada and Sunita Williams in front of Starliner mockup.  They are the crew of Boeing’s first post certification mission (PCM).  Google Images

Two crew members were named for the next Boeing Starliner manned flight known as the first post-certification flight (PCM).  This means this will be the first manned flight to begin routine flights to the International Space Station after NASA certifies the Starliner and Atlas 5 vehicle.

The first crew member to be named for this flight (now no earlier than June 2019) is Minnesota native John Cassada, a Navy Commander and test pilot.  He was selected as an astronaut in 2013 and this will be his first spaceflight.

Flying with Cassada is veteran Shuttle astronaut and ISS Commander Sunita “Sunny” Williams.  In total Williams has spent a total of 322 days in space and has performed seven spacewalks over the course of her career so far.  Her first flight was aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-116 in December 2006 (which was the last launch of the Space Shuttle from Pad 39B, all other Shuttle launches were from Pad 39A, now leased by SpaceX.)  During that flight, she began her first long-duration flight and returned to Earth on Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-117 in June 2007.  Williams returned for another stint on the Space Station and became the second woman ever to command the Space Station.

NASA has not made public which astronaut will Command these missions, but my gut tells me that the veteran astronauts will be the ones to Command to let the rookies get their “space legs”.

There is some concern that this process could take as long as the end of 2019 or go into 2020.  NASA has not ordered any more seats for astronauts to fly on the Russian Soyuz rocket, so this would leave a gap in American presence on the Station.  One idea being floated is using the first test flight to take a crew member to begin a 6-month stay on the station.

There is an American flag that was left on the Space Station by the last crew of the Space Shuttle that Ferguson commanded over 7 years ago, and the first crew and company that carries the first astronauts to the Station will have the distinction of bringing that flag back to Earth.  At this point in time, it looks like SpaceX is up to be the first with their manned launch now being targeted for No Earlier than April 2019. 


Google Images “Commercial Crew Assignments; NASA nears goal of human space transport innovation”