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NASA selects first Astronauts team for Starliner Crew mission

Willmore and Williams, veterans, will make the piloted test flight of the Boeing spacecraft

Suni Williams, Mike Fincke and Barry Wilmore stand alongside an Atlas V rocket topped by a Starliner spacecraft in May 2022, the day before the launch of the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission. (Boeing/John Grant)

NASA has selected the first crew to fly aboard Boeing's new commercial spacecraft. Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams will fly the Crew Flight Test (CFT) of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, with launch perhaps later this year. The two veteran astronauts will spend about two weeks in Earth orbit, with most of the mission on the International Space Station. The assignments are NASA's latest move to the CFT crew complement, which has seen at least three other astronauts prepare for the mission since 2018.

Barry Wilmore, who will command the test flight, was first added to the crew in October 2018. 2020, when astronaut Chris Ferguson, former NASA space shuttle commander, withdrew from the mission, citing family concerns.

Sunita Williams has served as a reserve test pilot for CFT while she was assigned as mission commander for Starliner-1, Boeing's first post-certification mission. As the CFT pilot, Williams replaces Nicole Mann, who was on the original crew assigned to the mission in 2018. NASA transferred Mann to SpaceX's Crew-5 in October 2021. The CFT will be Williams' third flight after flying 322 days aboard two expeditions on the ISS.

Mike Fincke, who replaced fellow American astronaut Eric Boed due to an unspecified medical issue in January 2019, has been removed from the CFT core team. Fincke will now serve as a backup for Wimore and remains eligible for a future mission. He began working on Starliner as an assistant to the commercial crew chief in the Johnson Space Center astronaut office in 2015. “Mike Fincke has devoted the last nine years of his career to these early Boeing missions, and Suni the last seven. Butch has done a wonderful job leading the team as the spacecraft's commander since 2020," Chief Astronaut Reid Wiseman said in a statement. "We're all looking forward to cheering for Butch and Suni as they fly the Starliner's first manned mission."

The reduction from three to two-member crew on the CFT was based on the station's current resources and programming needs. A short-duration mission with just two test pilots is sufficient to meet all NASA and Boeing objectives for the CFT, which include demonstrating the Starliner's ability to safely fly operational manned missions to and from the space station. To protect against unforeseen events with transport to the station, NASA may extend the duration of the CFT in docked mode by up to six months and add an astronaut later if necessary.

NASA and Boeing continue to conduct data analysis from the unmanned Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission completed in May 2022: the Starliner capsule that flew on that mission was returned to Boeing's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Center in Kennedy Center in Florida, where it is receiving system checks and inspections.

The Boeing team is in the process of passing initial test flight data to NASA and jointly determining future work before the CFT. These engineering and program reviews are expected to continue for several weeks, culminating in an assessment of the launch schedule in late July, based on spacecraft readiness, space station scheduling needs, and Space Force Station launch readiness of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“Starliner and Atlas V performed well during all phases of OFT-2, and we are now analyzing each system to determine what needs to be updated or improved before CFT, just as we do with all other manned flights. ” said Steve Stich, NASA's commercial crew program manager. "Additionally, Butch, Suni and Mike were instrumental in developing the Starliner on the way to having a second space station crew transport system."


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