Indian origin Sunita Williams is among the four astronauts picked by Nasa on Friday to train for a programme which will one day land an American on Mars.
Sunita Williams, Robert Behnken, Eric Boe and Douglas Hurley will train to fly to space on commercial crew vehicles, 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 International Space Station,” said Nasa administrator Charles Bolden.
“These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail - a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars,” he said.
The commercial crew initiative is part of the agency’s plan to return space launches to US soil. Nasa is working towards a 2017 launch.
Sunita Williams, a US navy captain, is a veteran of two long-duration spaceflights and has spent a total of 322 days in space. She currently holds the record for total cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut (50 hours and 40 minutes).
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).
Their selection moves the US closer to President Obama's goal of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, said John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology.
More than 350 American companies in 36 states are working on Launch America, the commercial crew initiative.
“There are real economic benefits to bolstering America’s emerging commercial space market,” Bolden said. “Every dollar we invest in commercial crew is a dollar we invest in ourselves, rather than in the Russian economy.”
It costs $76mn per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft. The average cost on an American-owned aircraft will be $58 million per astronaut, according to reports.