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NASA chooses ace SPACE PILOTS who'll take the USA back into manned flight

The 'nauts who'll ride Boeing, SpaceX podules to the ISS

NASA has chosen the astronauts who will be first in the upcoming return by America to manned space operations. All four are veteran space fliers and former military test pilots.

"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," said NASA's administrator Charles Bolden.

"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."

The foursome, three men and one woman, will be trained to fly the SpaceX Dragon capsule and Boeing's Crew Space Transportation CST-100 over the next two years. The roster includes some of the most experienced astronauts NASA has on its books and all have two orbital missions under their belts. All four are qualified military test pilots, rather than being scientists or teachers by training as many NASA astronauts are.

Sunita Williams is probably the highest profile member of the crew; she has spent nearly a year in space in total and was, until recently, the world's most experienced female astronaut. Williams, a former ISS commander, also holds the Women's record for the amount of time spent spacewalking and has been at NASA longer than any of her compatriots. Before astronaut training she was a Navy test pilot.

Robert Behnken is a specialist in robotics and is a former Air Force test pilot who helped develop the F-22 fighter before joining NASA as a pilot in 2000. He has completed two Space Shuttle missions, both on Endeavour, and helped install the Japanese Kibo Laboratory on the ISS.

Eric Boe is another former Air Force test pilot, as well as a combat flier over Iraq with 55 missions on his record. He has flown two Space Shuttle missions, both as pilot, and delivered the ISS' infamous water recycling machinery that turns yesterday's coffee into today's cappuccino.

In contrast to the two Air Force flyboys, Douglas Hurley is a former marine and naval test pilot who was the first jarhead to fly the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet. He was the pilot on the last ever Space Shuttle mission back in 2011 aboard Atlantis.

Bolden said that the move to flying on American commercial spacecraft would save the agency a ton of money. The Russians are currently charging NASA $78m per passenger into orbit, compared to $58m for US firms to do the same job.

The SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft designs are also more efficient, managing to cram in four astronauts per trip - plus 100kg of cargo per person - compared to the three 'nauts that the Russian rockets can carry at a time. It also frees NASA from some of its negotiations with an increasingly fractious Putin regime.

"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," Bolden said.

NASA also gave details of the next generation of astronauts, who have graduated to full flight status. The eight newbie astronauts, four men and four women, were whittled down from a list of more than 6,300 applicants – the largest number in NASA's history. ®

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