Meet NASA astronauts launching on Boeing Starliner from Cape Canaveral

Meet NASA astronauts launching on Boeing Starliner from Cape Canaveral
Meet NASA astronauts launching on Boeing Starliner from Cape Canaveral

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Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is set to launch from the Space Coast on May 6, with two astronauts onboard, kicking off the test flight that will certify the spacecraft to join in the rotation with Dragon to fly NASA crewed missions.

The two NASA astronauts flying this commercial crew mission are Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams. Both are Navy test pilots. They have each flown in space twice and both bring a wide variety of experiences to the flight. The two astronauts have spoken in the past about how they found their way to this mission: the Starliner Crewed Flight Test (CFT).

Williams was originally a helicopter test pilot before switching to flying jets. “I wasn’t sure this pilot thing was really good for me,” Williams said in a 2023 commencement speech at Florida Tech, where Williams earned a master’s degree in Engineering Science. “But, I knew I had to give it a shot.” Now she is preparing to fly to space for the third time, as the crew test flight pilot.

This will be Wilmore’s third spaceflight as well. “I wonder what it looks like from way up there.” Wilmore said on a March 2023 episode of NASA’s Houston We Have a Podcast as he reflected on the beginning of his journey until this point − becoming the mission commander.

Boeing’s Starliner is scheduled to launch at 10:34 pm Monday from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Who is NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Starliner CFT Commander

“You know, my mom said my first word was not “mom” or “dad.” It was “why?” I was always questioning everything,” Wilmore said on a March episode of the NASA podcast Houston We Have a Podcast. And one of his questions was what it’s like up there, in space.

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Before becoming a NASA astronaut, Wilmore was a US Navy captain, fighter pilot, and test pilot, accumulating more than 8,000 hours of flight time. Wilmore flew the FA-18 Hornet and T-45 Goshawk, playing a role in missions during Operation Desert Storm, Desert Shield and Southern Watch.

Wilmore’s education prior to becoming an astronaut includes a BS and MS in Electrical Engineering from Tennessee Technological University and a MS in Aviation Systems from the University of Tennessee.

“I had finished a master’s degree or two, and then I thought, ‘Wow, you can’t fly any higher and faster than the shuttle. I wonder what it looks like from way up there.'” said Wilmore on the March episode of Houston We Have a Podcast.

It took Wilmore four applications until he was selected as a NASA astronaut. “So (I) made application to NASA and they said, ‘Thank you very much, appreciate your application.’ And then I made another one a couple of years later and they said, ‘Oh, that was nice, thank you for your application.’ They were very cordial.” Wilmore said on the podcast episode.

The third time Wilmore applied, he got an interview at NASA, but was not selected. He explains that he put in his fourth, and final, astronaut application, and finally got past the interview stage − all the way to NASA astronaut.

Wilmore was selected by NASA for the astronaut corps in 2000, and has since flown to space twice, spending a combined total of 178 days off Earth. Wilmore piloted Space Shuttle Atlantis during STS-129 in 2009, spending 10 days on the ISS. He later flew again in 2014, this time on a Soyuz during Expedition 41 and 42. During that mission, which landed on March 12, 2015, he spent 167 days in space.

Wilmore was assigned to this upcoming mission in October 2020 as the commander, replacing astronaut Chris Ferguson, who stepped down from the flight in order to attend to family commitments.

Wilmore has two daughters, Daryn and Logan. He serves as a pastor for Providence Baptist church in Pasadena, Texas.

According to a Boeing statement released in March, he is a fan of musicals, and plans to play music on the way to the ISS. Williams, his fellow Starliner crew member, stated that she may ask him to sing during the journey, which according to NASA lasts approximately 24 hours.

During the March 13, 2024 episode of Houston We have a Podcast, Wilmore was questioned on how he feels as the launch of Starliner approaches. To this, Wilmore said, “Like she (Williams) said, our hands in every procedure, some alterations to hardware and software, and be a part of that process, and then actually get to climb up and ride that elevator up to the top level and climb on board, wow.

Who is NASA astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams – Starliner CFT Pilot

“I am lucky enough to be in the very cool business of space exploration as a NASA astronaut. There is so much going on. New spacecraft. New space companies. New space visions,” Williams told the Florida Tech Class of 2023.

Williams earned her BS in Physical Science from the US Naval Academy in 1987 and earned her MS in Engineering Science from Florida Tech in 1995. Last year, she gave a commencement speech to the 2023 Florida Tech graduates.

She urged the graduates to find their “starting line.” “Get to the starting line,” Williams said. “Well, let’s be honest, when I was in your shoes, graduating from college, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with my life.”

During his speech, Williams said his plan had been to join the Navy and learn to fly. “I think I had flown a small aircraft once before that and fell asleep in the backseat. So I wasn’t sure this pilot thing was really good for me,” Williams told the graduates. “But, I knew I had to give it a shot.”

According to her NASA biography, her accomplishments as a helicopter pilot include deployments to the Mediterranean, Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to support Desert Shield and Operation Provide Comfort.

Williams started his journey as a Navy test pilot in 1993. “I loved flying helicopters, but I was a little surprised and disappointed when people told me that you had to be a jet pilot to be an astronaut…I could have quit there and never tried,” she said.

Williams has since accumulated more than 3000 hours of flight time. The aircrafts she has flown include the CH-46 Sea Knight and V-22 Osprey.

Selected by NASA in June 1998, Williams was assigned ground projects − waiting for an assignment to fly in space. She assisted with the early collaboration between NASA and the Russian Space Agency on the International Space Station before shifting to working with the Robotics branch for the ISS Robotic Arm.

Williams also became an “aquanaut” on an underwater NASA analog mission called NEEMO, or NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project. Williams lived in the Aquarius undersea research station for nine days with fellow crew members during NEEMO2. Aquarius is operated by Florida International University, and according to a NASA statement, it is located 62 feet under the ocean and 3.5 miles off Key Largo, Florida. NASA uses the Aquarius habitat to simulate living in a spacecraft, as well as to practice spacewalks in diving gear.

Williams’ chance to fly to space came when assigned to STS-116. On December 9, 2006, Williams and crew took off onboard Space Shuttle Discovery for a six month stay onboard the ISS.

Williams returned to the ISS during Expedition 32/33. Launching from in a Soyuz spacecraft on July 14, 2012, Williams saw another long stay onboard the space station. After that 127-day visit to space, she accumulated a total of 322 days spent off the planet.

During his two spaceflights, Williams completed seven spacewalks, and according to a Boeing statement, he also took part in the Boston Marathon, running along on a treadmill.

Sunita Williams on being “The Starliner Crew”

Williams told the Florida Tech graduates that “going to space is a team sport.”

“With each launch that was rescheduled, I’ve been given perspective I would’ve never had without those delays,” Williams said before going on to explain how the crew not only got more time to learn about the spacecraft, but to also help shape the Starliner program.

Assigned to the Commercial Crew Program in 2015, Williams has been waiting nearly a decade for this mission. While SpaceX continues to fly its Crew Dragon spacecraft, Starliner lagged behind and experienced some problems with an early test flight.

Both SpaceX and Boeing were awarded contracts to fly NASA crews back in 2014, and hoped to reach that milestone by 2017. It was not until 2020 that SpaceX began successfully flying crewed missions.

“It’s been tough watching our SpaceX colleagues fly again and again. But that fact has made us the Starliner crew.” Williams said of the fact that she and Wilmore have had additional time to learn the vehicle and interact not only with each other, but with the team at Boeing during the past two years.

Brooke Edwards is a Space Reporter for Florida Today. Contact her at [email protected] or on X: @brookeofstars.

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