Boeing Starliner Spacecraft Made By Astronauts For Astronauts: Sunita Williams

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 Sunita Williams

The space capsule which Indian-origin astronaut Sunita Williams has piloted to the International Space Station (ISS) is the most modern crew module and it has been designed making sure astronauts who fly in it are safe and comfortable.

Ms Williams, 59, has been involved in its making right from the beginning.

According to data released by Boeing, the Starliner has a height of 5 meters with both Crew Module and Service Module and a diameter of 4.6 m. It weighed 13,000 kilograms at lift off.

The Starliner is designed to accommodate a maximum crew of seven, but NASA missions will carry a crew of four to five. Each crew module is designed to fly up to 10 missions, so it is partially reusable. The service modules are made for each mission as they get jettisoned in space.

According to Boeing, the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner spacecraft was designed for a mix of crew and cargo, for missions to low-Earth orbit.

Ms Williams called the Starliner a "fantastic spacecraft" and the whole crew module can be flown and the docking and undocking and landing can all be done autonomously. On the current mission, the docking to the ISS did happen in an autonomous mode.

Ms Williams, on June 10 in a video call with school children on Earth, said that the mission may get extended to two weeks at the space station as the Boeing Starliner has just been put to "sleep" to see how it revs up after a period of quiescence, all part of testing a new spacecraft.

The inaugural crew for the seven-seat Starliner also includes veteran NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore, a retired US Navy captain and fighter pilot. Sunita "Suni" Williams, who is former Navy helicopter test pilot, has experience in flying more than 30 different aircraft.

NASA chief Senator Bill Nelson while speaking with "Butch" and "Suni" said: "You look terrific up there … do you want us to delay your return to Earth as you seem happy up there."

Notably, Ms Williams was given the opportunity to name the spacecraft she would fly in, and she named it "Calypso" after the famous ship on which the French oceanographer and legendary film maker Jacques-Yves Cousteau explored the oceans when she was still a student.

The mission has already faced years of delays and comes at a challenging time for Boeing, as a safety crisis engulfs the century-old aerospace titan's commercial aviation arm.

NASA is also banking on Starliner's success in order to achieve its goal of certifying a second commercial vehicle to carry crews to the orbital outpost.

In 2014 NASA had awarded a $4.2 billion contract for its making from scratch and 10 years later it had not seen even a single successful human space flight till this ongoing mission with Ms Williams as the pilot and Butch Wilmore as Commander.

In comparison, Space X which was given a similar contract for development of Crew Dragon was delivered at an estimated cost of $ 2.6 billion and SpaceX is already ferrying astronauts to the ISS using its crew module since 2020.

NASA says the Starliner docked to the forward-facing port of the station's Harmony module and Williams and Butch Wilmore will remain at the space station for an extended period to test the Starliner spacecraft and its subsystems before NASA works to complete final certification of the transportation system for rotational missions to the orbiting laboratory as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program.

"We are selling the extra fifth seat on NASA missions. Potential customers include commercial and government sponsored astronauts and even private citizens flying as tourists," said NASA.

The Indian astronaut who has to fly to the ISS later this year or the next as part of the deal inked between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi could well fly on the Starliner or it could also be the Dragon Crew Module developed by SpaceX which has already had nine crewed flights.

India is also developing its own Gaganyaan space capsule as part of the Rs 10,000 crore Gaganyaan Mission that can ferry up to three astronauts into space to a low earth orbit and ISRO is targeting to have the first crewed flight around 2026.

"Life is good and we live like a big family on the ISS," said Ms Williams.

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