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NASA veteran Sunita Williams tells us what it’s like to get ready to fly a new spacecraft

NASA veteran Sunita Williams tells us what it’s like to get ready to fly a new spacecraft


The two-time flyer will soon fly commercial

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Image: NASA

NASA astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams is about to embark on a whole new adventure in space: commanding the first operational flight of Boeing’s new space capsule, the CST-100 Starliner. And when she flies, it will mark just the second time that the Starliner has ever hosted a crew.

Boeing has been developing the Starliner as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative to send NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station on private US spacecraft. A second company, SpaceX, is also developing a vehicle for the program — a passenger version of the company’s Dragon cargo capsule. After four years of development, the capsules are finally nearing completion and the companies are preparing to fly their vehicles for the first time. First, both SpaceX and Boeing will fly their spacecraft without crew, and if those flights go well, then they’ll put people on board. These crewed flights will help NASA determine if the capsules are safe, and if the space agency approves, the companies will then begin flying regular missions to and from the ISS.

Williams will be part of the first operational mission of the Starliner

On August 3rd, NASA selected the astronauts that will fly on these inaugural flight. Williams will be part of the first operational mission of the Starliner, along with rookie astronaut Josh Cassada. That means she and Cassada will fly once the very first crewed flight test of the vehicle is complete. She and Cassada won’t be alone, though. They’ll have two other astronauts on board, assigned by NASA’s international partners.

This will be Williams’ third trip to space. Having flown on both a Space Shuttle mission and a Russian Soyuz rocket, Williams has spent a cumulative 322 days in low Earth orbit and has seven spacewalks under her belt — once the record for any female astronaut. Williams has known she’d be part of the first Commercial Crew flights since 2015, when NASA announced the four astronauts, including her, that would be involved with the program. It was only this year that she learned which flight she would be on.

The Verge spoke with Williams about her experience in the Commercial Crew Program up to this point, and how things will change now that she’s been assigned to a crew.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did you get involved in the Commercial Crew Program? Did you express interest in being picked to fly on these vehicles?

In 2015, I had come back from managing all the folks who go to Russia to train to go on Soyuz. Because I had flown on Soyuz, I have some background on that. I had also flown on the Shuttle and had done pretty much anything I thought I would do when I came into the Astronaut Office. And I was sort of ready to hand it over to the young guys.

Then this opportunity came up. And of course, we really don’t put our name in the hat. We’re just there, available, and we have all the qualifications. And it just so happened that the four of us who were selected all have two spaceflights under our belts. So we had experience, and I think that’s what folks are looking for — to bring experience into the companies. And so we worked with them for the next couple of years before we got assigned to specific flights.

Image: NASA

And at that time, we really didn’t know which company [we were going to fly with]. That’s how it goes in our office. You’re called when you’re needed to go do what they need you to do.

Can you talk about what training has been like so far and how things have changed since you’ve been assigned?

There’s definitely a difference from when the four of us were selected — Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley, Eric Boe, and myself — for the cadre in summer of 2015. When we were selected for that, our sole focus was going from company to company, seeing what they’re doing, and trying to help in any way we can. It was not very scheduled. It was a little more haphazard as the companies were getting ready, because essentially the Power Points were starting to become hardware.

“we’ve already put a lot of influence into the spacecraft.”

Now at this point in time, the hardware’s pretty much getting done. And so we’ve already put a lot of influence into the spacecraft, and now we’re working to see how the testing is going. And in the meantime, we’re going through all the training with the trainers. They’re going to have to train follow-on crews, and so we’re evaluating that [process] from the experience we’ve had from training both for the Shuttle and the Soyuz and for the space station. So now it’s not as haphazard. It’s a little more defined than it has been in the past. Although, it’s very fluid because with every test you learn something new and you have to do something else, right? But at least there’s sort of a schedule for the testing, and scattered in between that is actual training for the spacecraft and training for the space station.

And what are the biggest aspects of training? Since you’re doing a full-fledged mission, do you have an idea of what the mission profile will be yet?

[We] are starting to do more space station stuff. I’m getting my robotic evaluations next week, as a matter of fact. We’re starting to do spacewalk training, for general stuff. [Our flight date] is obviously quite a question right now, and when we go determines what spacewalks we could potentially do. There’s a set of batteries, for example, that need to be changed out in 2020. There are a set number of spacewalks that are out there, so there’s a good possibility when Josh and I are up there with our international partners we might get to do a couple of spacewalks.

Sunita Williams, with her fellow crew member Josh Cassada
Sunita Williams, with her fellow crew member Josh Cassada
Image: NASA

So right now we’re doing all the generic training, just to make sure you keep your heels up in the pool and also in robotics. It’s getting pretty fun, because it’s actually getting real and it’s probably going to be within the next year and a half that all the crews that were assigned fly. That’s pretty awesome.

How has this training process compared to the process of training for the Soyuz?

Of course, it’s in the United States. So even if it’s in California or Florida or Texas, it’s nice. You’re not that many time zones away from your family and you’re home on the weekends, generally.

But the training flows are just becoming defined. We’re working with all the trainers here in Houston for Boeing, just establishing what’s important. The trainers are all a little nervous, because they don’t have all their T’s crossed and I’s dotted, because the vehicle is just being developed. As the vehicle’s becoming finalized, they’re rushing, scrambling to get the training done to make sure they understand it so they can teach it to us.

Williams training at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston
Williams training at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston
Image: NASA

Soyuz is done. It’s been there; it’s the same thing. Of course, they do have upgrades, but the basics of the spacecraft have always remained the same. When you’re on a Soyuz flight, you know that when you go to Russia you’re going to do X, Y, and Z. You have that plan already laid out. For us, we’re helping define it with the trainers on both companies, so it’s pretty fun. You weigh what things are important, and what things are not important. You can learn about every nut and bolt on the spacecraft, but that’s knowledge that you’re not going to use when you’re up there. So we’re helping them make the priorities about “what does this mean for the person sitting in the spacecraft?”

Since you’re on the Boeing flight, the company has set up most of its training facilities in Houston as opposed to SpaceX, which is in California. Does it help having training so close to home?

Of course it’s nice. It’s right here. There’s one downside in comparison to both Soyuz and SpaceX, is that when you go to those places — when I went to Russia or when I went to California — you’re sort of focused on what you’re doing. Your family’s not there. Your lawn isn’t needing to be cut. You’re just focusing on what you need to do. But when you’re home, you get distracted, of course. A whole bunch of life is going on.

I’ll go home and have dinner with my family, and then I’ll go back to the simulator at night

But it’s also great. For example, we’re helping the folks with the software at night and it’s not a big deal. Okay fine, I’ll go home and have dinner with my family, and then I’ll go back to the simulator at night and help them work through their software process. That’s pretty cool. You don’t feel like you’re putting your family out, because you can be home for dinner, be home for a soccer game, and then go work. So that’s nice.

Were you involved in the selection process for your flight?

All of us were asked. I mean, of course. We’re America; we ask people what their inputs are. [laughs] To be honest with you, I was a little surprised, and I think there were a couple of other people who were a little surprised. But we’re all pinching ourselves, because it’s an amazing opportunity to fly on either one of those flights.

So it’s all good. We’re all happy, and I think it actually worked out really well. I’m so excited that I’m flying with Josh. Seeing him for the first time go to space, and then be a full-up crew member — that’s pretty cool. So we’re all a little surprised, but our bosses knew what they were doing. And I’m happy with the whole situation.

How do you think the Boeing and SpaceX capsules compare to one another?

They both have the same goal, so they’re fairly similar. They both go from Earth to the station, so size-wise they’re similar. Both of them are automated, which is awesome. That’s what we wanted. Both suits are comfortable. Other suits in the past have been a little bit bulky or made you sort of hunch over a little bit. These suits don’t do that. They’ve taken into account feedback people have had.

Williams in Boeing’s Starliner mockup in Houston
Williams in Boeing’s Starliner mockup in Houston
Image: NASA

Folks have seen the cockpits of the spacecraft. Right now, there are hand controllers on the Boeing spacecraft, which always makes a pilot happy. There are no hand controllers right now on the SpaceX vehicle, which makes people go, “Oh that’s interesting. How are you going to handle that problem if you had to manually fly?” It’s just little different ways to solve problems.

SpaceX has been farther away from the government than Boeing has, obviously. So they’re unencumbered and trying maybe a couple new and innovative ideas, which is great. It’s awesome for the space business. I know we want this business to be successful, so we can all take advantage of these advances in technology. But they’re also a little risky. So we’ll also have to see how all that goes.

What are you looking forward to most for this upcoming launch?

Honestly, it’s coming back to the United States. I have a relatively new niece and nephew, who have never seen any of this. And there are lots of kids out there who have never been able to get into their minivan with their parents and drive to Florida. Seeing a launch from Florida, it’s huge. The first time I saw one, I couldn’t help but cry. I thought, “Wow that’s spectacular.” That’s what engineering is.

Seeing a launch from Florida, it’s huge. The first time I saw one, I couldn’t help but cry.

That’s what I think is the coolest thing: bringing the launches back to the US and thinking about the next possibility for this next generation going back to the Moon and onto Mars. This is just the start. It’s opening the window.

The Starliner is a new vehicle, but you will be the second ones to ride in it. What do you hope to learn from that first test flight? What kind of questions will you be asking the first crew to prepare for your trip?

The question I’ll be asking: “What did it sound like?” There are going to be explosions to make [pieces of hardware] fall off or the cover come off. These are things that we have no knowledge about until afterward. I think there’s going to be a recorder in both vehicles on the first flights just to hear and understand. We got audio back from EST-1, which is the experimental flight test of Orion, and it’s spectacular. You can hear the jets go, “boom, boom, boom, boom” when they fire. And you’re like, “Whoa, I wouldn’t have expected that.”

Is there anything that’s nerve-wracking for you or your family about going up on a brand-new spacecraft?

I’m totally confident, and the reason is that both of these spacecraft have systems that go: “Uh oh. Something’s wrong. Now what do I do? Back up.” It’s software that looks for anomalies and then re-configures the system. Both of them have that. And because of technology changes, they’ll have a lot of redundancies. I know there will be some software issues down the road, and so I have confidence that the vehicles have redundancies in their own fault-detection systems and then also have redundancy where the pilot can interact.

You mentioned earlier that you thought there weren’t going to be any more vehicles for you to fly on and then Commercial Crew popped up. Now there’s a big push to go back to the Moon. Would you be open to the possibility of maybe flying on SLS and Orion, or some other new vehicle, to go back to the lunar surface?

I would love to do that. But there are other people in our office who would love to do it, too. And I’ve had just an amazing career. I’d love to stick around and give my experience. If the opportunity came up and they said, “Suni, we need you.” Sure I would do it.

But I feel like that’s the whole reason I’m flying with Josh, for example. It’s our obligation to make sure these guys are ready to do bigger and bolder things like fly Orion. But if they want us, oh heck yeah, I’ll be there.