Astronaut Sunita Williams will pilot the first crewed Starliner mission


Indian American astronaut Sunita Williams will serve as a pilot for NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission to the International Space Station, where they will live and work on the Earth for about two weeks. NASA announced June 16.

This will be Williams’ third long-duration mission aboard the International Space Station. Previously, she had served as a backup test pilot for CFT as the commander of NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 mission, Starliner’s first post-certification mission where she was assigned as commander.

The 1965-born Williams, addressed as Suni by her colleagues at NASA, was selected as an astronaut by the agency in 1998 and has two previous space missions. Currently, Williams is training for the post-certificate mission of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.

Williams’ first expedition (Expedition 14/15) was from December 9, 2006 to June 22, 2007 when as flight engineer she launched with the crew of STS-16 and docked at the International Space Station, two days later. In her first expedition, Williams created a world record among female astronauts with four spacewalks totaling 29 hours and 17 minutes. Astronaut Peggy Whitson broke the record with five spacewalks.

Her second expedition (Expedition 32/33) was an international collaboration when she along with Russian Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko and Flight Engineer Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency were launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 14, 2012. They reached the International Space Station on July 17, 2012 and joined a team comprising NASA Flight Engineer Joe Acaba and Russian cosmonauts, the Expedition 32 commander Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineer Sergei Revin.

For the next four months, Williams was at the International Space Station for research and exploration and returned to Kazakhstan after 127 days in space. During her stay aboard the International Space Station, Williams and Hoshide performed three spacewalks to replace a component that relays powers from the space station’s solar arrays to its systems and also repairs an ammonia leak at the station radiator, totaling 50 hours and 40 minutes.

Williams with 322 days in space on two missions is ranked sixth on the all-time US endurance list, and second all-time for a female astronaut.

The Ohio-born Williams replaces NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, who was originally assigned to the mission in 2018. Mann has been reassigned to the agency’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission in 2021.

Williams and her crewmates are working closely with Boeing to develop their new spacecraft systems, which will provide roundtrip crew transportation services to the International Space Station and, along with SpaceX’s CrewDragon, return the ability to launch humans into space from Unites States soil.

In October 2020, NASA had assigned CFT commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore to the prime crew.

Additionally, NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, whom the agency previously assigned as joint operations commander for CFT, will now trains as backup spacecraft test pilot and remains eligible for assignment to a future mission.

“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.”

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

NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps continues to prepare for an upcoming long duration mission aboard Starliner-1. NASA also has identified backup flight opportunities for Epps on the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft for additional scheduling and resource flexibility. Epps has begun cross-training on the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft to prepare for this possibility.

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. 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.

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. The Starliner team is in the process of delivering the initial test flight data to NASA and jointly determining forward work ahead of a crewed flight. These engineering and program reviews are expected to continue for several weeks, culminating in a launch schedule assessment at the end of July, based upon spacecraft readiness, space station scheduling needs, and Eastern Range availability.

“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. Regular, long-duration commercial crew rotation missions enable NASA to continue the important research and technology investigations taking place aboard the orbiting laboratory. Such research benefits people on Earth and lays the groundwork for future exploration of the Moon and Mars , starting with the agency’s Artemis missions, which include landing the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface.