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NASA Names Astronaut Team To Pilot U.S. Private Spacecraft In 'New Era'

The first test flight of a SpaceX Dragon capsule has been scheduled for April. (file photo)

NASA has announced what it said will be a new era in U.S. space exploration, naming a group of nine astronauts charged with launching into space on private rockets from the United States.

The space agency said on August 3 that the astronauts will launch new generations of spacecraft made and owned by private companies like Boeing and SpaceX into low-Earth orbit and to the International Space Station in coming years.

The astronauts will carry out the first flight tests and missions of two leading Boeing and SpaceX crafts next year, NASA said, with the first test flight of a SpaceX Dragon capsule scheduled for April.

NASA hasn't launched a crew from the United States since it retired its space shuttles in 2011. Since then, it has relied on Russia to fly U.S. astronauts into space, with each ride on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft costing NASA about $80 million.

"This is a big deal for our country and we want America to know that we are back," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

"For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil."

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and dpa