New space race heating up regarding commercial spaceflight

NASA selects 2 companies simultaneously working on craft

In the 1960s, Houston was home to fearless astronauts who risked their lives. They returned from space to a hero's homecoming. Now, a new space race is heating up.

"I'm extremely excited about the opportunity to serve the country once again," said NASA astronaut Douglas Hurley.

He is one of four astronauts whom NASA has selected to fly on the first commercial spaceflight. But how did we get to this point?

The last time NASA flew astronauts on an American ship was in July 2011 on the shuttle Atlantis.

Hurley was on board that historic flight. Since then, NASA has relied on the Russians to get us into space.

"The Russians have been great partners, but it's important for the United States to have its own launch capability, not only for the foreseeable future but beyond," Hurley said.

Now we're on the cusp of a new era: NASA astronauts flying on spacecraft built in the U.S., built by American companies.

NASA has selected two companies -- Boeing and SpaceX -- and both are simultaneously working on their craft.

Boeing is working on a spacecraft called the Starliner.

SpaceX is working on the Crew Dragon.

Here's how the race looks right now:

SpaceX is scheduled to test its unmanned vehicle in November. It hopes to put astronauts on board in May 2018.

Boeing hopes to run an unmanned test in June 2018 and put a NASA astronaut and a Boeing astronaut on board two months later.

Boeing has not named its astronaut. But, according to Boeing, its astronauts will train at Johnson Space Center in Houston and at the Boeing facility in Houston.

"I'm more excited about the space industry today then I have been since I’ve had this job," Bob Mitchell, with the Bay Area Economic Partnership, said.

The Boeing and SpaceX flights will be launched from Florida's Space Coast and will make a trip to the international space station.

Boeing has also agreed to use the space center's mission control. SpaceX will operate out of California.

"With the concepts we have today, it is very easy to build a control center and operate with today's technology so you can operate anywhere," said George Abbey, senior fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute. He formerly serveed as director of the Johnson Space Center.

"I think, really, things have changed quite a bit. NASA and Houston isn't really in the prime role it used to have," Abbey said.

But the space center still has expertise in training astronauts.

"As we look to the future, we want to keep training the astronauts here," Abbey said.

While private companies are working to get astronauts to the space station, NASA has revealed even loftier goals: human exploration of Mars.

Recently, those plans were added to federal legislation that President Donald Trump signed. It's a law that includes more than $19 billion in funding.

"Now this nation is ready to be the first in space once again," Trump said. "We're taking the first steps toward a bold and bright new future for American spaceflight."

"The fact that the president signed the first Re-authorization Act since 2010 sends a very strong message that space is important, not only to this community but to the entire nation," Mitchell said.

So far, NASA has only tested an unmanned Orion vehicle in the Mars mission.

The Trump administration has asked NASA to look into what the requirements are for having the next test flight with astronauts, and that could be as early as next year.