WASHINGTON-SpaceX is poised to launch its first astronauts into space this spring: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Their flight on the company’s Crew Dragon spaceship will mark the first time an American spacecraft has carried NASA astronauts since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.

Behnken and Hurley’s liftoff is expected to launch a new era of US spaceflight, since it will allow NASA to stop relying on Russian launch systems to get astronauts into space. It will probably also make the two astronauts the first to ever fly a commercial spacecraft.

“Bob and I were lucky enough to be selected together,” Hurley told The Atlantic in September. “As we get closer to launch, things in the last year have actually been pretty hectic. We’ve been spending increasing amounts of time in California, because that’s where most of the work is being done for Dragon.”

In preparation, they have run through emergency procedures, undergone extensive training the Crew Dragon’s mechanisms, worn their new spacesuits, and met with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

“People to a degree think it’s pretty glamorous to be able to go into space, but it’s actually like a messy camping trip,” Hurley told Reuters in June.

In 2018, NASA selected Behnken and Hurley to be the first astronauts to fly SpaceX’s new spaceship. They will probably be the first to fly any commercial spacecraft.

SpaceX developed its Crew Dragon spaceship as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, a competition that spurred private companies to develop new astronaut-ready spacecraft. In total, NASA selected nine astronauts to conduct the first human test flights of the Crew Dragon and its Boeing counterpart, the CST-100 Starliner.

Musk expects to send Behnken and Hurley to the International Space Station on Crew Dragon’s first manned test flight - called Demo-2 - in April, May, or June.

That would be the first time an American spacecraft has launched astronauts since 2011, when the space shuttle program ended. Behnken and Hurley have been working closely with SpaceX on the Crew Dragon’s development since 2015, so they’re well equipped to fly the spacecraft. Both men started out as military pilots. Hurley spent 24 years as a test and fighter pilot in the Marine Corps, logging over 5,500 hours in more than 25 different aircraft. Behnken was an Air Force test pilot. He logged over 1,500 hours flying more than 25 aircraft.

NASA hired them both as astronauts in 2000, and they became friends when they worked together in the space shuttle program.

Behnken flew on two space shuttle missions, logging over 708 hours in space with a total 37 hours of spacewalks. Hurley piloted two space shuttles, including the very last one, spending a total of over 683 hours in space.

Since NASA’s final space shuttle flight, however, the agency has relied on Russia’s Soyuz system to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But Russia has nearly quadrupled its prices over a decade. A single round-trip seat now costs NASA about $US85 million.

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