The Dream Chaser. Credit: Sierra Nevada

Company test pilots slated for first commercial space flights

Posted: January 9, 2013

The first American rockets and spacecraft to fly in the wake of the shuttle’s retirement will be crewed by company test pilots — not NASA astronauts — in part to give space agency managers better insight into flight readiness and safety, officials said Wednesday.

Assuming NASA gets the funding managers say they need — a big if in today’s political environment — Space Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, hopes to launch a manned version of its Dragon cargo ship in the mid 2015 timeframe, followed by a crewed flight to the International Space Station later that year.

A top Boeing manager told reporters the company’s CST-100 capsule should be ready for an initial three-day orbital test flight, with company pilots, in 2016. A senior manager with Sierra Nevada, which has pinned its hopes on a winged orbiter similar in appearance to a mini space shuttle, said both manned and autonomous sub-orbital test flights will be used to pave the way to orbital missions.

The test flights will be part of a complex certification process that will lead to NASA flights to and from the space station in the 2017 timeframe, budgets permitting. Whether those flights will use all-NASA crews or combinations of company pilots and NASA passengers is not yet clear.

But until Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada or some other company fields an American-built manned spacecraft, U.S. astronauts will be forced to continue reliance on rides to and from the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft at more than $60 million a seat.

Read more: Spaceflight Now | Breaking News | Company test pilots slated for first commercial space flights.

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