The astronauts will fly on the spacecraft developed by Elon Musk-owned SpaceX's Crew Dragon and global aviation firm Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, as part of the U.S. space agency's Commercial Crew programme to send humans to the ISS on private United States spacecraft. It will be fun and adventurous to see the astronauts take off from American soil and worth a wait to see them aboard the International Space Station.
The Starliner test flight astronauts named by the agency are Eric Boe, Christopher Ferguson, and Nicole Aunapu Mann, while the Crew Dragon test flight astronauts would be Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley.
NASA awaits the completion of both companies' test flights before certifying either safe for use to return astronauts on low-Earth-orbit missions.
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. - Alan Shepard, John Young are some of America's first explorers into the great unknown, but Friday NASA will announce who will be America's next space pioneers.
Ferguson isn't now a NASA employee, though he served as an astronaut from 1998 to 2011 and commanded the final Space Shuttle mission. The astronauts have been training with SpaceX and Boeing, on top of their NASA work, ever since.
Robotic flight controllers released the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft from the International Space Station's robotic arm at 12:38 p.m. EDT, and Expedition 56 Serena Auñon-Chancellor of NASA is monitoring its departure.
"Once you get into the spacecraft, you're on your way, you've got a mission, you're focused, and it's really exciting", she said.
Veteran station flight engineer Mike Hopkins will be accompanied by rookie astronaut Victor Glover on the Crew Dragon's first operational flight to the station. The other commercial crew members are still with NASA.
Williams and crew mate, Josh Cassada will fly the second flight, and first mission, of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner vehicle.
"We are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil", said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during the "Launch America" announcement. It may also include Russia, as NASA officials have discussed in the past flying Russian cosmonauts on commercial crew vehicles, possibly in exchange for seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Boe is one of nine people who were named as commercial crew astronauts during a ceremony Friday at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"The first flight is something you dream about as a test pilot", said Hurley, who flew on the last shuttle mission.
It is worth mentioning here that the team of nine astronauts comprising of eight active NASA astronauts and one former astronaut, will launch on Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Dragoncapsules to the International Space Station that will begin in the mid of 2019. They were two of the four astronauts selected by NASA in July 2015 to be trained to fly commercial crew missions. The first test flight of the programme is scheduled for mid-2019.
The astronauts assigned to the Starliner's first mission are Sunita Williams, who retired as a Navy captain, and Cmdr. Just as in the past, all human launches will originate here on the space coast.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon will launch on the company's Falcon 9 rocket.