NASA Selects Astronauts for First U.S. Commercial Space Flights

July has always been a big month for America’s space program.  Next week, on July 14, New Horizons will make the closest approach ever to Pluto, and the United States will become the first nation to visit this dwarf planet in the outer reaches of our solar system. This July 4 marked the tenth anniversary of Deep Impact, mankind’s first mission to reach out and touch a comet. It was on July 20, 1969 that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their giant leap for humankind.  It was on July 30, 1971 that the lunar rover was driven on the surface of the Moon for the very first time. It was on July 4, 1997 that Pathfinder arrived on Mars.  Furthermore, it was on July 14, 1965 – 50 years ago next week – that Mariner 4 flew by and sent us the very close-up first pictures of Mars.

Today, a half century after we received those first pictures of the Red Planet, we’re able to make a significant announcement that will further our nation’s Journey to Mars.

I am pleased to announce that four American space pioneers have been selected to be the first astronauts to train to fly to space on commercial crew vehicles, all part of our ambitious plan to return space launches to U.S. soil, create good-paying American jobs and advance our goal of sending humans farther into the solar system than ever before.  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.  (Click on each astronaut’s name to learn more about him or her!):

For as long as I’ve been Administrator, President Obama has made it very clear that returning the launches of American astronauts to American soil is a top priority – and he has persistently supported this initiative in his budget requests to Congress.  Had we received everything he asked for, we’d be preparing to send these astronauts to space on commercial carriers as soon as this year.  As it stands, we’re currently working toward launching in 2017, and today’s announcement allows our astronauts to begin training for these flights starting now.

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 (ISS).

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 (SLS) rocket that are geared toward getting astronauts to deep space.

Furthermore, there are real economic benefits to bolstering America’s emerging commercial space market.  We have over 350 American companies working across 35 states on our commercial crew initiative.  Every dollar we invest in commercial crew is a dollar we invest in ourselves, rather than in the Russian economy.

Our plans to return launches to American soil also make fiscal sense. It currently costs $76 million per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft.  On an American-owned spacecraft, the average cost will be $58 million per astronaut.  What’s more, each mission will carry four crewmembers instead of three, along with 100 kg of materials to support the important science and research we conduct on the ISS.

For these reasons, our commercial crew program is a worthy successor to the incredible 30-year run of the Space Shuttle Program.  The decision that President Bush made in 2004 to retire the Space Shuttle was not an easy decision, but it was the right decision.  As you’ll recall, it was the recommendation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and endorsed by many people in the space community – including yours truly.

I cannot think of a better way to continue our celebration of independence this July than to mark this milestone as we look to reassert our space travel independence and end our sole reliance on Russia to get American astronauts to the International Space Station.

I also want to take this opportunity to offer a special word of congratulations to astronaut candidates from the Class of 2013, who are transitioning into flight-ready status.  These eight outstanding Americans – four of them women, four of them men — were selected from a pool of more than 6,300 applicants – our second largest pool of applicants, ever.

The enthusiasm for NASA’s astronaut program reminds us that journeying to space continues to be the dream of Americans everywhere.  So my message to members of our incredible NASA Family, is that you must never lose sight of the fact that by your work every day, you inspire today’s students to become tomorrow’s leaders, scientists, engineers and astronauts.

You can click on each astronaut’s name to learn more about our newest astronauts: