Astronauts arrive at Kennedy Space Center as the first crew for Boeing's Starliner spacecraft

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It wasn't just another ride for a pair of veteran NASA astronauts who arrived at the Space Coast ahead of their flight aboard Boeing's CST-100 Starliner.

Barry „Butch” Willmore and Sunita „Suni” Williams, who joined NASA's space force more than two decades ago, will be the commander and pilot for the crewed flight test mission of the much-delayed shuttle.

The first manned launch aboard an Atlas V rocket bound for the International Space Station will take place on May 6 at 10:34 p.m. from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The pair landed at the former Space Shuttle Landing Facility on Thursday afternoon and flew into KSC in their T-38 jets as they spoke to reporters ahead of the Vanguard mission.

„Is the mission going well? Of course we want to do it,” Wilmore said from the tarmac. „Do we expect it to go well? This is the first human flight of the spacecraft. We'll definitely find things. That's why we're doing this. It's a test flight. When you test, you expect to find things, and we'll find things.”

Wilmore, who was part of NASA's astronaut class of 2000, was the pilot of STS-129 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis for an 11-day mission in 2009 and then spent nearly five months on the ISS from 2014-2015. Williams was part of NASA's 1998 astronaut class and had two long-term stays on the ISS, first flying STS-116 on Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006 and STS-117 on Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2007 for 192 days in space. . He flew on a Soyuz in 2012 for a four-month stay.

This will be the duo's third trip to space, but with 11 days to go until launch, the pair are not resting on their laurels. Wilmore said the coming days could be summed up in three words.

„Review, review and review—that's all we're working on. There's a lot of it, there's a fair amount of responsibility, obviously, that we hold,” he said. „We're ready. But we want to be ready. We have a week to make sure there's not one event that we've prepared for that we're not ready for.”

It is the sixth new US-based spacecraft to carry humans, following Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttle and the most recent entry, SpaceX's Crew Dragon. Dragon's first human spaceflight came nearly four years ago, launching on May 30, 2020 with its own pair of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

Williams said he got a pep talk from Behnken.

„I got a text from Bob last night, and he was so pumped that we were coming down here. He said, 'I can picture in my mind where we were,'” he said. „He's giving us. Great and we're ready to fly.”

SpaceX and Boeing have been running very closely together in development since the end of the last decade, as one of the two companies was awarded contracts by NASA under its Commercial Group program. The goal of the program was to replace US-based flights after the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, which forced Russia to rely on Soyuz spacecraft for flights to the ISS.

However, Starliner ran into trouble on its first unmanned test flight in December 2019 and failed to rendezvous with the ISS, forcing a major overhaul of Boeing's plan, including hardware, software and management changes. That led to a successful repeat of that unmanned test flight in 2022, but further hardware delays have now made it so that next month's planned launch will be more than four years behind schedule.

Since then, SpaceX has sent 50 humans aboard its four Crew Dragon spacecraft on 13 missions, and has three more scheduled to fly before the end of the year.

Starliner took longer, but it was time, Wilmore said.

„There have been some delays because we're not ready,” he said. „There are 1,000 events going on simultaneously when you're preparing for launch, during the launch sequence, and then when we're in orbit and the spacecraft itself.”

But he is adamant that all parts must be right.

„There's so much going on. It's not easy. I think we're making it easier. That's our goal,” he said. „The public wants to think it's easy, but it's not. It's really hard. We wouldn't be here if we weren't ready. We're ready. The spacecraft is ready. The teams are ready.”

Boeing's CFT mission now aims to stay on the ISS for about eight days. Its crew's main goals are to test docking protection systems during approach and landing operations as it returns to Earth, unlike the water splashdowns on Florida beaches that SpaceX took. Team Dragon.

If successful, it would line up Boeing to begin operational missions to the ISS in February 2025. That first mission, called Starliner-1, already has three of its four crew members named.

Boeing has been contracted for six crewed orbital missions to the ISS at the end of its operation in the early 2030s. SpaceX and Boeing will transition to sharing one mission per year for NASA until the ISS is decommissioned.

For his part, Williams now touts Starliner's role in the NASA program and its role in NASA's future Artemis mission to the Orion spacecraft.

„There are a lot of similar things that Orion has,” he said. „So if I was a young astronaut and I thought about going to the moon, I'd raise my hand and think, 'I'd love to fly the Starliner.'”

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