Astronauts picked for SpaceX, Boeing capsule test flights

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NASA announced Friday a mix of spaceflight veterans and rookie astronauts who will launch on the first flights of new Boeing and SpaceX commercial spaceships starting as soon as next spring, several months later than previously scheduled.

The Indian-origin astronaut, Williams, is named for the Boeing programme to the International Space Centre (ISS).

Since the end of NASA's space shuttle program in 2011, the American space agency has relied on Russian rockets and capsules to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station.

Recent delays have pushed back the first flights of the Starliner and crewed Dragon to 2019, with uncrewed test flights hopefully happening in November for SpaceX or late this year, early next year for Boeing.

Nine astronauts were named to ride the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing Starliner capsules - five on the first crew flights and four on the second round of missions to the International Space Station.

For the first formal mission involving Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, NASA picked Sunita Williams, a former commander of the ISS who has spent 322 days in space, and John Cassada, who became an astronaut in 2013 and will be making his first trip to space. The missions will likely include veterans from the US' Space Shuttle program, Gizmodo reported.

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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.

The selected astronauts are set to fly to low Earth orbit in Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicles as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program.

On the SpaceX vessel will be astronauts Doug Hurley, Victor Glover, Robert Behnken and Michael Hopkins.

The missions are meant to maximize the time the astronauts can dedicate to research in space, getting humanity further closer to the final frontier.

The SpaceX rocket will be crewed by Dr. A NASA press release says more crew members may be added to those flights later.

"The men and women we assign to these first flights are at the forefront of this exciting new time for human spaceflight", said Mark Geyer, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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Glover, a former Navy commander and test pilot, was also among the 2013 astronaut class. They were two of the four astronauts selected by NASA in July 2015 to be trained to fly commercial crew missions. Hurley is a retired Marine Corps colonel and test pilot who has also piloted space shuttles Endeavor and Atlantis.

The Boeing Starliner test flight will see the craft launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, from Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. He served more than 24 years in the US Marine Corps as a fighter pilot and a test pilot. It will be first spaceflight for 45-year-old Cassada while Williams has the experience of two stays at the ISS.

Since the shuttle was retired seven years ago, US astronauts have had to fly on Russian rockets from a remote launch site in Kazakhstan.

"I'm sure there's at least one Russian-language instructor out there who thinks that having me fly in a USA vehicle is not a bad idea", quipped Cassada.

"To meet NASA's requirements, the commercial providers must demonstrate that their systems are ready to begin regular flights to the space station...."

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