It's been almost four years since NASA officially ended the Space Shuttle program, and ever since astronauts have been using Russian Soyuz vessels to visit the International Space Station, while American companies like SpaceX have tried their hand at unmanned space vehicles for supply deliveries to the station. Now, we're entering a new era in space travel, and it begins with NASA training astronauts to fly commercial spacecraft to the ISS so the agency itself can focus on loftier goals, like getting us to Mars.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced Thursday that the agency has chosen four astronauts -- Robert Behnken, Sunita Williams, Eric Boe, and Douglas Hurley -- to begin training for flights onboard vessels created by American companies as part of NASA's Commerical Crew Program, which is expected to launch in 2017. Through this program, American astronauts will begin flying to the ISS via commercially made space vehicles (i.e. SpaceX's Dragon V2), while NASA itself is able to devote more resources to developing spacecraft that can get us to Mars.
"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," Bolden wrote.
"Furthermore, there are real economic benefits to bolstering America’s emerging commercial space market. We have over 350 American companies working across 36 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."
Bolden also noted that it will cost significantly less to fly an astonaut via the Commerical Crew Program ($58 million) than it would to fly an astraonut via a Russian capsule ($76 million), and in light of that and other advantages, NASA is calling the CCP a "successor" to the Space Shuttle Program, with the added advantage of leaving NASA free to work on even bigger spaceflight goals.
So, space exploration is changing once again, and if it works, amazing things could lie ahead.