Indian-origin Sunita Williams is among four “veteran” astronauts picked by NASA to fly the first commercial space vehicles, a part of the space agency’s ambitious plan to put a man on Mars by 2030.
Williams, 49, accompanied by Robert Behnken, Eric Boe and Douglas Hurley, will train and prepare for commercial spaceflights that will return American launches to the US soil and further open up low-Earth orbit transportation to the private sector.
“These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail – that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
The four astronauts will work closely with the Boeing Company and SpaceX to develop their crew transportation systems and provide crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station (ISS), NASA said.
“We are on a journey to Mars, and in order to meet our goals for sending American astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s we need to be able to focus both on deep space and the groundbreaking work being done on the ISS,” Bolden said.
Their selection allows the US to move forward to deliver on President Obama’s ambitious plan for sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, said John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology.
“We are excited to have such an experienced group of astronauts working with the Commercial Crew Program, Boeing and SpaceX and ultimately flying on the companies’ flight test missions,” said Kathy Lueders, Commercial Crew Program Manager.
“Naming these astronauts is a key step forward and consistent with past approaches to involve the crew in the design and development of new systems,” Lueders said.
A veteran of two long-duration spaceflights, Williams spent a total of 322 days in space and currently holds the record for total cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut (50 hours and 40 minutes). She now ranks sixth on the all-time US endurance list and second all-time for a woman astronaut. NASA chose her for the astronaut programme in 1998.