Meet Suni and Butch: The Nasa astronauts for Boeing's first human space flight

Beginning commercial operations would help Boeing transport Nasa astronauts and private clients to the ISS

Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore at the Nasa Shuttle Landing Facility in Titusville, Florida, in April. EPA
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Nasa’s veteran astronauts are set to blast off on Boeing’s first human space flight next week – a test flight that will help determine whether the company is ready to begin commercial operations.

Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore will head to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Boeing CST-100 capsule for a two-week stay after launching from Florida. The launch was initially mean to be on May 6 (May 7, UAE time), but due to a pressure valve issue was postponed to May 17, and since then has been pushed to May 21 after reports of a helium leak.

The spacecraft will blast off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V, broadcast live on Nasa’s website and social media channels.

The crew took part in a media briefing on Wednesday from their quarantine quarters in Florida.

“Our mission is primarily a test mission and it’s really flying the spacecraft to the space station, docking and then checking it out while it's docked to make sure that it could be a safe haven and that it can remain docked to the space station for a number of months,” said Ms Williams.

Beginning commercial operations would help Boeing transport astronauts for Nasa and private clients to and from the ISS.

The company is contracted under Nasa’s Commercial Crew Programme, which seeks to launch and return agency astronauts on privately owned spacecraft.

SpaceX is also part of the programme and has been launching crew for Nasa since 2020.

Meet the crew

Ms Williams, a retired Navy captain, has logged 322 days in space and completed seven spacewalks totalling 50 hours and 40 minutes.

“I think it's going to be like going back home – both of us have lived there for six months and pretty much know the space station,” she said.

Mr Wilmore is a US Navy captain who has spent a total of 178 days in space. He was selected as an astronaut in 2000.

He said that the skills he gained as an astronaut and a navy captain have helped him to train for this mission.

“I don't think either one of us ever dreamt that we'd be associated with the first flight of a brand-new spacecraft,” he said.

“The training we both received at Navy Test Pilot School … has been invaluable for the process.”

Arriving to launch pad like Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

The former navy captains said they felt like they were part of Top Gun: Maverick, a 2022 film in which Tom Cruise's character returns to a navy piloting school to train top aviators.

Mr Wilmore said they would be playing parts of the movie on the way to the launch pad, while riding in Boeing's new AstroVan II.

"You're riding in the AstroVan – it's got cushioned seats and, of course, it's got a big video screen in the back," he said.

"And, as you would expect from two navy test pilots, you know what movie we put on: of course, it was Top Gun: Maverick.

"We've actually asked them [if they could] edit it and put in only the flying scenes and the dramatic scenes.

"And we will watch [it] on the way out to the pad on Monday night."

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Updated: May 18, 2024, 7:14 AM