CAPE CANAVERAL — NASA has selected four veteran astronauts to lead the way back into orbit from U.S. soil.
On Thursday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden named the four who will fly on capsules built by private companies — SpaceX and Boeing. Each astronaut has test pilot experience and has flown twice in space.
The commercial crew astronauts are: Air Force Col. Robert Behnken, until recently head of the astronaut office; Air Force Col. Eric Boe, part of shuttle Discovery's last crew; retired Marine Col. Douglas Hurley, pilot of the final shuttle crew; and Navy Capt. Sunita Williams, a two-time resident of the International Space Station.
"These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail, a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars," Bolden said on his blog.
SpaceX and Boeing are aiming for test flights to the space station by 2017. It will be the first launch of astronauts from Cape Canaveral since the space shuttles retired in 2011.
In the meantime, NASA has been paying Russia tens of millions of dollars per ride on Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts; the latest tab is $76 million.
Bolden noted that the average cost on an American-owned spacecraft will be $58 million per astronaut, and each mission will carry a crew of four versus three.
The four range in age from 44 to 50, and have been astronauts for at least 15 years. Each attended test pilot school; Williams specializes in helicopters.
NASA said the four were chosen for their spaceflight experience. They have a combined total of more than 400 days in space.
The announcement comes just 1½ weeks after SpaceX's failed launch to the space station with cargo. The Dragon capsule lost atop the Falcon 9 rocket that broke up shortly after liftoff on June 28 is a smaller, simpler version of what will be used to carry astronauts to the space station. NASA's other commercial shipper, Orbital Sciences Corp., also is grounded because of a failed launch dating back to last fall.