NASA announces new astronaut class

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"Future Commercial Crew astronauts will be riding to space on partner vehicles built by SpaceX & BoeingSpace", NASA said in a tweet.

In a ceremony at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the space agency revealed nine astronauts assigned to the first four crewed flights of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsules. While both companies had recently said they would conduct their first test flights with astronauts on board by the end of this year, those flights are now scheduled for 2019. Boeing said only that it would fly NASA's astronauts by sometime in the middle of next year.

On Friday, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine introduced the nine astronauts, who will fly on the first four crewed missions using the new craft.

The team is split into two parts, with each group specializing in one of the spacecraft: Boeing's CST-100 Starliner or SpaceX's Dragon. "Each test flight will provide data on the performance of the rockets, spacecraft, ground systems, and operations to ensure the systems are safe to fly astronauts", explained NASA in the statement.

The first crewed test flight of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule will include NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

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This will be the first trip into space for Mr. Glover, Mr. Cassada and Ms. Mann. Williams has already spent more than 300 days in space.

The astronauts named on Friday will be carried aloft aboard spacecraft developed by entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX and Boeing Co, crewing first the test flights, and then missions involving both Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon.

Space X's Dragon will be tested by Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, and Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins will be on the crew for that mission.

Since 2011, the United States has relied on Russian Federation to ferry astronauts to the space station.

NASA officials didn't state why a three-person crew would be flying on the Starliner test flight, but the agency announced an agreement earlier this year with Boeing to study turning that crewed test flight into an operational mission in the event of further commercial crew delays.

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Sunita Williams, a veteran astronaut with roots in Needham, is going back into space.

The commercial flights will mark the return of crew launches to the USA, which has not seen humans lift off for space since the end of the iconic space shuttle program seven years ago.

"What we see now is a much great emphasis on safety", Ferguson said, regarding differences between the shuttle program.

After announcing the crews, Bridenstine engaged in a largely lighthearted question-and-answer session with the selected astronauts, who expressed their delight in being selected and anticipation in flying on these next-generation vehicles. She has logged 322 days in space. And now, each new SpaceX launch becomes a media sensation -- while NASA's public profile is fading.

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.

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