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SpaceX and Boeing are on their way to launching US astronauts, NASA says

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The agency will use the partnership to end dependency on Russia

New details about NASA's Commercial Crew Program were revealed today during a press conference held at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Both SpaceX and Boeing have completed the first milestones in their plans to send humans into space from US soil for the first time in years.

SpaceX has completed the first certification milestone in its CCP commitment, and will spend much of 2015 testing abort solutions for its formerly cargo-only Dragon capsule. (Abort procedures are more critical in crewed missions.) A launchpad abort will be tested in the next two months at Cape Canaveral, and an in-flight abort test will follow "later this year," according to SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell. Uncrewed missions to the ISS with the new capsule will start in 2016, and the company is still working out the makeup of its first test flight crew.

"I don't ever want to have to write another check to Roscosmos."

The CCP was started after the shuttle program was put to rest in 2011. Last April, NASA announced it wouldn't work with Russia any longer when it came to transporting American astronauts to the International Space Station. Instead, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to build this new fleet of crewed spacecraft back in September. "I don't ever want to have to write another check to Roscosmos," NASA's administrator Charles Bolden said during today's press conference. As of right now, the CCP should allow for an average cost of $58 million per seat, as opposed to the average of $70 million per seat it was costing the agency to fly with the Russians.

SpaceX's goal is to fly over 50 Falcon 9 missions before attempting the first crewed launch in early 2017. Those missions will accommodate four crew members with space for cargo. The company will operate these CCP missions similarly to its cargo missions. That means the mission control centers, flight simulators, and other flight capabilities will be located at both Johnson Space Center and at the company's base in Hawthorne, CA.

Dragon Commercial Crew Program

The company is also working on outfitting its Dragon capsule with propulsive landing, Shotwell said, which could improve reusability by dispensing with the need to splash down in water. Instead, the capsule would land right at Johnson Space Center, using rockets on the bottom to help control the descent. That's not the only new technology the company is working on. It hopes to outfit its Falcon 9 rockets with wings and retrorockets so they can land on autonomous barges in the ocean.

Boeing will launch the first crewed mission

Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders said that the first crewed mission in 2017 will belong to Boeing despite the fact that SpaceX already has a working spacecraft. To fill that first mission, the astronaut office is looking at naming a "small cadre" of astronauts that would follow both companies. The first crew will be selected from that group, which will be named "before long," according to Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa.

Boeing has completed the first two certification milestones for its CST-100 spacecraft. NASA has signed off on parts of its commercial crew operation, including designs for the control center, training systems, flight simulators, and software. Boeing has also started building its crew access tower on the Atlas V launchpad, and that construction will continue in between uncrewed Atlas V launches.

The first test hardware for Boeing's spacecraft will be delivered to Kennedy Space Center next month, and the first hardware for the actual crewed vehicle will be assembled later in the year. The initial crewed test flight will contain one Boeing test pilot and one NASA astronaut. In the meantime, Boeing is also spending time refurbishing the Kennedy Space Center facility that will be used for constructing its spacecraft.

Both capsules are designed to be reusable

The CST-100 will undergo a critical design review in March, and if approved, will let the company launch "full-bore" into manufacturing, according to VP and General Manager of Boeing Space Exploration John Elbon. Boeing's spacecraft can fit up to seven crew members, and is also being designed with reusability in mind. According to Elbon, the plan is for the capsule to be recovered, refurbished, and reused up to 10 times.

When asked how this all fits in with the 2016 budget, Bolden said he's "very optimistic." "Congress has, I think, kind of started to understand the critical importance of commercial crew and cargo. They've seen, as a result of the performance of our providers, that this is not a hoax. It's not a myth. It's not a dream," he said. "It's something that really is happening."