NASA announces crew who will fly first commercial rockets into space

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Their voyages are scheduled to begin next year, and they would be the first American astronauts to launch from USA soil since 2011.

NASA on Friday named nine astronauts for the first manned space launches from US soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

"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.

Their successful test flight will pave the way for two different astronauts to take the Starliner to the International Space Station for Boeing's first operational mission at a later date. NASA worked closely with the companies to engineer both spacecraft.

Behnken, Hurley, Boe and Mann are Nasa's first astronauts to be named to the test flights of new USA spacecraft since the March 1978 announcement of the space shuttle's first orbital flight test crews. Flights without any people are expected before the end of 2018, followed by two crewed missions sometime in 2019. It will be Glover's first time in space.

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The vessels, the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing Starliner, have been developed with billions of dollars in funding from NASA, which has contracted SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to make cargo deliveries to the space station since 2012.

SpaceX, however, did move up the uncrewed test flight of its Dragon spacecraft from December to November of this year.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft will be launched on one of the company's Falcon 9 rockets, while Boeing's Starliner will hitch a lift on United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5.

Despite her relatively recent success in her work with NASA as an astronaut, NASA officials have noted she's the type of astronaut who could be sent on a manned mission to Mars or to an asteroid. She has logged 322 days in space.

The commander on the historic last shuttle mission, Chris Ferguson, is now a Boeing employee and has been heavily involved in developing the company's CST-100 Starliner capsule. It would be the first space trip for Mann.

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Eric Boe (left), Nicole Mann (center), Christ Ferguson (right). He has a doctorate in engineering and is a flight test engineer and colonel in the Air Force.

Currently, NASA pays between $3 and $4 billion every year to maintain the operational capacity of the ISS, and the costs associated with keeping things running smoothly will only continue to grow as the systems on board get older.

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But NASA's options may be limited by the global agreements that established the station in 1998. Boeing's and SpaceX's commercial spacecraft may also open the space station - and more broadly, Earth orbit - to more privately-funded visitors and spaceflight participants from countries that do not have their own domestic crewed spacecraft and rockets.

A series of thruster firings propelled the Dragon capsule away from the space station, and the ship's Draco thrusters ignited at 5:23 p.m. EDT (2123 GMT) for a de-orbit burn.

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There's no guarantee that either SpaceX or Boeing will stick to the schedule announced today.