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NASA selects astronauts for first commercial flights

NASA selects astronauts for first commercial flights
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NASA on Thursday named the four astronauts who will begin training for the agency's first commercial space flights, which are expected to begin in 2017. 

The announcement is a major development in NASA's pivot toward reliance on the commercial space industry, following the 2004 decision to retire its space shuttle. In the meantime, the United States has relied on Russia to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station. 

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The four astronauts selected have a total of about 418 days in space. The most experienced astronaut on the roster is Sunita Williams, who has spent 332 days in space on two missions. She holds the record for the woman with the most cumulative hours spent on spacewalks.

Other astronauts selected include Robert Behnken, who currently serves as the chief of the astronaut office for NASA. Eric Boe, who has served on two spaceflights, was also selected, as well as Douglas Hurley, who serves as assistant director for flight crew operations at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"I cannot think of a better way to continue our celebration of independence this July than to mark this milestone as we look to reassert our space travel independence and end our sole reliance on Russia to get American astronauts to the International Space Station," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said

The commercial flights are envisioned to shuttle astronauts to low-earth orbit and to the International Space Station while NASA focuses resources on building a vehicle to take astronauts to deep space, including a Mars mission expected in the 2030s.

The United States pays $76 million per astronaut to Russia to hitch rides on its spacecrafts. NASA expects that expense to decrease on commercial flights. NASA has so far given billions of dollars to companies including Boeing and SpaceX to develop the commercial technology. 

Bolden used the announcement Thursday to take a veiled shot at Congress, which has been accused of underfunding the agency. NASA has warned that current appropriation bills could delay the agency's commercial plans. 

"Had we received everything [President Obama] asked for, we’d be preparing to send these astronauts to space on commercial carriers as soon as this year," Bolden said. 

"As it stands, we’re currently working toward launching in 2017, and today’s announcement allows our astronauts to begin training for these flights starting now," he added.