By Joey Roulette
(Reuters)

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

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s announcement signals a milestone in the U.S. space program, with its shift to the private sector for ferrying cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.

 

The astronauts assigned to crew the first flight tests and missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon acknowledge the media upon introduction at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston
The astronauts assigned to crew the first flight tests and missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon acknowledge the media upon introduction at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. The astronauts are (L to R): Victor Glover, Robert Behnken, Michael Hopkins, Douglas Hurley, Eric Boe, Sunita Williams, Christopher Ferguson, Josh Cassada, and Nicole Mann. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

Since the space shuttle program was shut down, the U.S. space agency NASA has had to rely on Russia to fly astronauts to space station, a $100 billion orbital research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (402 km) above Earth.

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.

The first flight is expected sometime next year.

 

 

“Space has transformed the American way of life,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”

President Donald Trump tweeted about the announcement: “We have the greatest facilities in the world and we are now letting the private sector pay to use them. Exciting things happening.”

 

NASA crew assignments announcement for Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
CEO of Boeing’s Defense, Space and Security Leanne Caret, NASA Director of the John F. Kennedy Space Center Robert Cabana and SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell are introduced as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

The commercial crew program will allow expanded use of the space station. NASA officials have said it is critical to understanding the challenges of long-duration spaceflight and necessary for a sustainable presence on the Moon and for deep-space missions, including to Mars.

In 2014, SpaceX and Boeing received contracts for $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively, to develop so-called space taxis that can ferry astronauts to and from the space station.

 

Astronaut Williams is introduced as NASA announces Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
Astronaut Sunita Williams is introduced as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

Of the nine astronauts tapped to serve as crew members, all but three are space flight veterans. Additional crew members will be assigned by NASA’s international partners in the space station at a later date, the agency said.

The Government Accountability Office said last month that launch plans could be delayed due to incomplete safety measures and accountability issues in NASA‘s commercial crew program.

 

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Orlando, Florida; Editing by Tom Brown and Rosalba O’Brien)

 

Astronaut Cassada is introduced as NASA announces Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
Astronaut John Cassada is introduced as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

Astronaut Mann is introduced as NASA announces Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
Astronaut Nicole Mann is introduced as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

Astronaut Glover is introduced as NASA announces Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
Astronaut Victor Glover is introduced as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

Astronaut Behnken is introduced as NASA announces Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
Astronaut Robert Behnken is introduced as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

Astronaut Boy is introduced as NASA announces Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
Astronaut Eric Boy is introduced as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

Astronaut Ferguson is introduced as NASA announces Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
Astronaut Christopher Ferguson is introduced as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

Astronaut Hurley is introduced as NASA announces Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
Astronaut Doug Hurley is introduced as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

New SpaceX spacesuit displayed as NASA announces crew assignments for Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
The new SpaceX launch and entry spacesuit is displayed as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

New Boeing spacesuit displayed as NASA announces crew assignments for Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
The new Boeing launch and entry spacesuit is displayed as NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

SpaceX COO Shotwell speaks before NASA announces crew assignments for Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell speaks before NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson

 

Boeing executive VP Leanne Caret speaks as NASA announces the crew assignments for Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon in Houston
Leanne Caret, executive vice-president of The Boeing Company and president and chief executive officer of Defense, Space & Security speaks before NASA announces the crew assignments for the first flight tests, missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson