JOHNSON SPACE CENTER — Fifty-six years and three months since NASA announced the original Mercury 7 astronauts, the space agency Thursday introduced the first four astronauts who will train to fly on commercial crew vehicles.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden introduced Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley and Sunita Williams, who will train for test flights of new space capsules from Boeing and SpaceX. When their flights lift off, scheduled for as early as 2017, they would be the first NASA astronauts to be launched from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle program ended four years ago. 

Boeing and SpaceX are the primary commercial providers for future manned missions to the International Space Station. Boeing is developing the CST-100 capsule and SpaceX the Dragon manned spacecraft.  

NASA now relies on the Russian space agency to ferry crews from Earth to the space station at a cost of about $76 million per seat aboard a Soyuz space capsule. By comparison, the average cost for the commercial launches from the United States would be about $58 million per astronaut, Bolden said. 

“We are on a journey to Mars, and in order to meet our goals for sending American astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s we need to be able to focus both on deep space and the groundbreaking work being done on the International Space Station,” Bolden said in a prepared statement. 

“Our commercial crew initiative makes these parallel endeavors possible. By working with American companies to get our astronauts to the ISS, NASA is able to focus on game-changing technologies, the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket that are geared toward getting astronauts to deep space.”

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Deer Park, whose district includes the Johnson Space Center and who is the chairman of the House subcomitte on space, welcomed Thursday’s announcement.

“Today’s announcement is an important development that brings us one step closer toward reaching our ultimate goal of launching American astronauts on American vehicles from American soil,” Babin said. “This is a testament to the hard work of those at Johnson Space Center who run NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and to those working at Boeing and SpaceX.” 

Babin’s neighboring congressman from Galveston County was equally pleased.

“I am pleased that NASA is moving forward with the commercial crew program in a timely fashion, and I congratulate the four astronauts selected for our first commercial spaceflights,” said U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood.

Behnken is a U.S. Air Force colonel and a mission specialist on two space shuttle flights, both aboard Endeavour in 2008 and 2010. He logged more than 708 hours in space and has six spacewalks under his belt. 

Williams is a U.S. Navy captain and helicopter pilot, as well as test pilot and instructor. She joined the astronaut corps in 1998 and was a member of the 2006 Expedition 14/15 crew and the 2012 Expedition 32/33 crew aboard the International Space Station. She was the space station commander for Expedition 33.

She spent more than 322 days in space and ranks sixth all-time for U.S. astronauts in endurance and second all-time for a woman in space. 

Williams also holds the record for cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut with 50 hours and 40 minutes of total time on spacewalks. She also was deputy chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center. 

Boe is a U.S. Air Force colonel and a test pilot and was a member of the 2000 astronaut class and pilot for two shuttle flights.

He was the pilot for the Space Shuttle Endeavour for its 16-day mission in 2008 and was the pilot of the final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2011.

Hurley is a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel who is the assistant director of new programs for the Flight Crew Operations Directorate at the Johnson Space Center. He has logged more than 683 hours in space as the pilot for the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2009 and the pilot of the shuttle Atlantis in 2011 for what was the 135th and final mission of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.

Contact Mainland Editor T.J. Aulds at 409-683-5334 or tjaulds@galvnews.com.

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