Thursday, July 25, 2024

Meet the first NASA astronauts to launch on Boeing's space shuttle

Two NASA astronauts are set to become the first in history to launch into space aboard a Boeing spacecraft.

Astronauts Barry “Butch” Willmore and Sunita Williams are set to pilot the company's Starliner capsule on its first crewed test flight to the International Space Station on May 6.

They arrived Thursday at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where both will remain until launch.

“This is where the rubber meets the road, and we're going to leave this planet, and it's pretty cool,” Williams said at a post-arrival news conference.

The long-delayed mission was crucial in proving that Boeing's spacecraft could safely send a crew into low-Earth orbit. If successful, it would be a major step for the company, which plans to eventually join the ranks of SpaceX in conducting routine flights to and from the space station for NASA.

Boeing's Starliner space shuttle lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on May 4, 2022. Frank Michaux/NASA

The test flight will be closely watched, as software glitches and problems with the Starliner's fuel valves have already pushed the mission years behind schedule. Boeing's private jet division also came under intense scrutiny after a crew of its 737 Max 9 jets exploded mid-flight earlier this year, raising questions about the company's quality control practices.

Willmore said the delays leading up to this launch were necessary to ensure the Starliner capsule was ready to carry humans into space.

“We wouldn't be here if we weren't ready,” he said. “We are ready. The spacecraft is ready, the crews are ready.

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Officials from NASA, Boeing and United Launch Alliance, which makes the Atlas V rocket that will launch the Starliner capsule, met Thursday and signed off on a May 6 liftoff attempt.

Mission managers with NASA, Boeing and United Launch Alliance gathered on April 25 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.Mike Chambers/NASA

Later on Friday, the astronauts completed a full launch day dress rehearsal. They will now spend the next week making last-minute preparations and training exercises. According to NASA.

If the crew successfully reaches the International Space Station, the astronauts will stay there for about a week before returning to Earth.

Wilmore and Williams are both experienced astronauts and former test pilots in the US Navy. NASA selected the pair for Boeing's first crew test flight in 2022.

Wilmore, the mission's commander, has logged 178 days in space and completed two previous space missions. The Tennessee native piloted the space shuttle Atlantis to the space station in 2009 and was sent to an orbital outpost on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2014 as a member of the space station's Expedition 41 crew.

Wilmore, left, and Williams arrive in Florida on April 25. NASA

Williams, the mission's pilot, had previously completed two stints aboard the International Space Station, spending a total of 322 days in space.

He grew up in Needham, Massachusetts, and first flew to the ISS on the space shuttle Discovery, where he stayed for about six months. In 2012, Williams returned to space, this time on a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft. His second stay on the space station lasted about four months.

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