Dragon Ready for Return Ahead of Commercial Crew Announcement

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On Friday, NASA is expected to announce which of four astronauts will ride on test flights and maiden voyages of the Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which arrived at Cape Canaveral last month.

Not only will the manned test flights be the first time astronauts fly to the space station aboard commercial spacecraft, but they will also be the first launch of "American astronauts on American-made spacecraft from American soil" since NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011, the space agency said.

Boeing and SpaceX came out on top with their CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon space capsule designs, respectively.

The schedule was that Starliner would test an uncrewed flight this month and then a crewed launch in November. The uncrewed test flight will not take place before the end of 2018 or early 2019 and the crewed test flight in mid-2019. The goal: ensure NASA astronauts can access the International Space Station and end USA reliance on Russia's increasingly expensive Soyuz spaceships to get there. Space station officials from around the world gave the "go" on Thursday for Dragon's release from the orbital complex.

More than 50 people are in NASA's astronaut corps, though 12 in the agency's 2017 astronaut class are still training.

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Boeing has also rearranged its test program, pushing back a pad abort test that was scheduled for this summer, before both the uncrewed and crewed test flights, to spring 2019, after the uncrewed flight. Falcon 9's first and second stages for the Demo-1 mission are targeted to ship from SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California to the company's rocket testing facility in McGregor, Texas for additional testing in August.

Later in April, NASA trained Boeing and SpaceX teams to operate the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle created to help personnel escape the launch pad in the unlikely event of an emergency on launch day.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft will be launched on one of the company's Falcon 9 rockets, while Boeing's Starliner will hitch a lift on United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5. Flights without any people are expected before the end of 2018, followed by two crewed missions sometime in 2019. Crew for Boeing's Crew Flight Test and SpaceX's Demo-2 flights will each include at least a flight commander and pilot aboard to test out the systems.

SpaceX has not publicly revised its Crew Dragon schedule.

After successful completion of the flight tests with crew, NASA will review flight data to verify the systems meet the agency's safety and performance certification requirements and are ready to begin regular servicing missions to the space station. Now, the White House wants to slash NASA's $21 billion budget - encouraging private-sector commercial activity in low Earth orbit as well as deeper forays into the solar system.

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