Sunita Williams to fly Starliner’s first crewed mission to Space Station

Sunita Williams

The veteran Indian American astronaut has spent a total of 322 days in space on two missions

Indian American Sunita Williams and fellow NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore will fly on Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT), Starliner’s first crewed mission to the International Space Station.

They will live and work there for about two weeks, the US space agency announced June 16. While Williams, 56, will serve as pilot Wilmore, whom NASA assigned to the prime crew in October 2020, will command the mission.

Read: Sunita Williams selected for NASA’s commercial spacecraft mission (August 4, 2018)

A launch date will be determined later this summer. Williams previously served as the backup test pilot for CFT while assigned as commander of NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 mission, Starliner’s first post-certification mission.

As CFT pilot, Williams takes the place of NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, originally assigned to the mission in 2018. NASA reassigned Mann to the agency’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission in 2021.

Based upon current space station resources and scheduling needs, a short duration mission with two astronaut test pilots is sufficient to meet all NASA and Boeing test objectives for CFT, which include demonstrating Starliner’s ability to safely fly operational crewed missions to and from the space station, the agency said.

To protect against unforeseen events with crew transportation to the station, NASA may extend the CFT docked duration up to six months and add an additional astronaut later, if needed, NASA said.

NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, whom the agency previously assigned as the Joint Operations Commander for CFT, will now train as the backup spacecraft test pilot.

Read: New Needham school to be named after Indian American astronaut Sunita Williams (June 16, 2017)

“Mike Fincke has dedicated the last nine years of his career to these first Boeing missions and Suni the last seven. Butch has done a marvelous job leading the team as the spacecraft commander since 2020,” said Reid Wiseman, chief, Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“It was great to see Starliner’s successful journey to the International Space Station during the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission last month. We are all looking forward to cheering on Butch and Suni as they fly the first crewed Starliner mission.”

OFT-2 was an uncrewed shakeout cruise to the orbiting lab that launched on May 19 and landed on May 25.

Wilmore, Williams, and Fincke each have flown previously as long-duration crew members aboard the space station.

Meanwhile, NASA and Boeing are continuing to conduct OFT-2 data reviews while assessing future CFT launch opportunities.

Following successful completion of the uncrewed OFT-2 mission, the Starliner crew module has returned to Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it will undergo system checkouts and vehicle inspections.

“Starliner and the Atlas V performed well during all phases of OFT-2, and now we are taking a methodical look at each system to determine what needs to be upgraded or improved ahead of CFT, just as we do with every other crewed flight,” said Steve Stich, manager, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“Additionally, Butch, Suni, and Mike have been instrumental in the development of Starliner on the path to having a second space station crew transportation system.”

For the crewed flight test, Boeing’s Starliner will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Following a successful CFT mission, NASA will begin the final process of certifying the Starliner spacecraft and systems for crew missions to the space station, the agency said.

Read: NASA revises crew for first piloted flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule (June 16, 2022)

Born in Euclid, Ohio, and raised in Needham, Massachusetts, Williams, née Sunita Pandya, previously held two space records — most spacewalks by a woman (seven) and most spacewalk time for a woman (50 hours, 40 minutes).

Williams, who has spent a total of 322 days in space on two missions, now ranks sixth on the all-time US endurance list, and second all-time for a female astronaut.

She was the second American astronaut of Indian heritage to go into space, after Kalpana Chawla, who died in the Columbia disaster.

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