NASA is relying on the skills and experience of an active-duty Air Force colonel and a retired Marine colonel to put the U.S. back in the business of manned space launches after a nine-year hiatus.

NASA “will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a tweet Friday.

For the first time since the space shuttles were retired in 2011, a manned space vehicle will go on a mission to the International Space Station, tentatively set for liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 27, NASA announced Friday.

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Air Force Col. Bob Behnken, 49, of Creve Coeur, Missouri, and retired Marine Col. Doug Hurley, 53, of Endicott, New York, both test pilots and veterans of space shuttle flights, are to be at the controls of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft owned and operated by SpaceX, the firm founded by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Behnken flew twice aboard space shuttle Endeavour in 2008 and 2010, accumulating more than 37 hours in space walks.

Hurley flew aboard space shuttle Endeavour in 2009 and was the pilot for the last shuttle mission aboard space shuttle Atlantis in July 2011.

Behnken will be the joint operations commander for the mission, and as such will be responsible for activities such as rendezvous and docking and undocking with the space station, NASA said. Hurley will be the spacecraft commander, responsible for launch and landing.

Currently, there are three astronauts aboard the International Space Station: Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, and NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy.

Since the shuttles were retired, NASA has relied on Russian rockets and spacecraft to get American astronauts to and from the space station, at a cost of about $80 million per astronaut.

The scheduled May 27 launch would be a historic milestone for NASA, marking the first time that U.S. astronauts are carried into orbit on a spacecraft owned and operated by a private entity, rather than a federal agency.

Boeing is also under contract with NASA to develop a vehicle for manned space flight, but its Starliner spacecraft program suffered a series of setbacks in testing.

— Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com

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