New year, new era? Commercial Crew Program poised for first flights

The first crews to will fly under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program were announced Aug. 3 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. From left-to-right: Sunita Williams, John Cassada, Eric Boe, Nicole Mann, Christopher Ferguson, Douglas Hurley, Robert Behnken, Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover.
Photo Credit: NASA

With 2018 in the history books and 2019 beginning, the new year could see NASA edge closer to regaining what it lost nearly eight years ago — the ability to launch its own astronauts (with the help of private companies) from U.S. soil.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program was envisioned as a means to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil. The companies that have been contracted to do so are Boeing and SpaceX. The former is developing the CST-100 Starliner capsule under this agreement, while SpaceX is producing its Crew Dragon spacecraft.

On Dec. 11, 2018, the final piece of hardware for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket tapped for Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) arrived at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The critical components for this flight are expected to be moved to the Vertical Integration Facility where they are set to be assembled and moved to the launch platform for a planned March flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41.

Boeing has also been busy a few miles down the road at the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility where production is wrapping for three Starliner capsules. Two of these spacecraft are designed to be flown up to 10 times. The other will be used for a pad abort test, currently scheduled sometime between OFT, and the crewed flight test planned for August 2019.

The Starliner capsule that will be used for the first crewed flight test is currently undergoing pressurized testing at Boeing’s Space System and Satellite facility in El Segundo, California.

Starliner launches are slated to occur atop an Atlas V in a “N22” configuration. The “N22” means the rocket will feature no payload fairing, two solid rocket boosters and a dual-engine Centaur upper stage, which will finish Starliner’s trek into orbit.

The three astronauts tapped to fly on the August 2019 flight are Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Mann. Both Ferguson and Boe flew on NASA Space Shuttles with Ferguson commanding the final Space Shuttle mission, STS-135.

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