LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This is Lulu's log - stardate August 5, 2018 - where we explore matters of space, the stars and the universe.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: NASA has taken a small step that is a giant leap forward in its space flight program.
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JIM BRIDENSTINE: Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you our Commercial Crew astronauts.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine this past week in front of a big American flag at the Johnson Space Center. He announced that NASA had selected the astronauts who will fly new space vehicles. Importantly, these aren't NASA spaceships but, rather, ones owned and developed by commercial firms. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to talk about this. Hello, Nell.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hello.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why was this announcement such a big deal for NASA?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I used to cover the space shuttle program. Do you remember the space shuttle?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It would take astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station. Well, it retired in the year 2011. Those...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So long ago?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Shuttles are now in museums.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And since then, American astronauts have had no way to get up to the station, except for riding on Russian rockets and space capsules. So there's been no American vehicle taking off from American soil to carry our astronauts up. Except NASA has been working with these commercial firms that are developing kind of space taxis. And this crew announcement is an indication that, you know, those launches are starting to really come close now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are these commercial space ships? And when are they going to launch?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the first flights are scheduled for next year. Now, there's - always could be delays, but the plan is next year. And you've got SpaceX with its Dragon capsule. So this is a capsule similar to the one that's already taking cargo up and down - to and from the space station. And then, there's Boeing's Starliner.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nice name.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nice name. And both of these are, basically, sort of, you know, bell-shaped capsules kind of like, you know, Apollo-era kind of looking capsules. They don't look like the space shuttle did.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. Who are the astronauts that have been picked for the assignment? I mean, are there any interesting names and faces?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So it's nine astronauts total, and there's a couple of rookies, like Nicole Mann. But for people who know NASA, there are familiar names here. For example, on the test flight of Dragon will be Doug Hurley. He was the pilot for the final shuttle mission. And, also, on the final shuttle mission, you had Commander Chris Ferguson. And he's going to be on the first flight of the Boeing Starliner. And what's interesting is that he retired from NASA, and he works for Boeing. So when he was standing up there on the stage with all the other astronauts, they were all wearing these sort of blue uniforms. And they were all identical, except for his. On - the front said Boeing. So he's a commercial astronaut, so that's kind of new.
BRIDENSTINE: Yeah. If these commercial space ships are going to take folks to the station, what about beyond the station? Does NASA have plans to finally go somewhere else?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So NASA is building something called the Space Launch System. And this is a huge rocket and capsule that's supposed to be capable of going farther out into space - so sort of beyond the space station, which is only about 200 miles up. It's like, you know, New York to Washington, D.C. It's like riding the Amtrak or something. So NASA wants to go out much farther. And the first test flight of the Space Launch System is supposed to go around the moon and back, which sounds cool, except for their first flight won't carry any people. It's scheduled to launch in, like, 2020. And then the first flight with people on board would come after that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So does that mean that we're going back to the moon?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That seems to be what the Trump administration wants. Under President Obama, the moon had been sort of pushed aside. And now the moon is back big time. Of course, what everybody really wants to do is go to Mars. And so, you know, the question is, what's the best steppingstone to Mars? And right now the money's back on the moon.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, thank you so much.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOOG CITY'S "C418") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.