Yesterday was a big day in spaceflight history! After a four year wait, NASA announced the names of the first astronauts who will fly to the International Space Station by way of commercial providers. The Everyday Astronaut team got special access to go behind the scenes with Boeing to get a sense of what the next generation of U.S. Astronauts are in store for!
The NASA Commercial Crew astronauts are:
NASA Commercial Crew Program
Test Flight Assignments –
SpaceX Crew Dragon
First Mission –
— Everyday Astronaut (@Erdayastronaut) August 3, 2018
In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing and SpaceX contracts to fly astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. Yesterday’s announcement confirms who will be flying Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 spaceship and SpaceX’s Dragon 2 Capsule. The race is on for the two companies to see which will be the first to retrieve the flag left aboard the ISS in 2011 by the crew of STS-135, the last space shuttle mission.
As with all spaceflight events, launch dates are still in flux, but we’re currently looking at mid 2019 for both the commercial provider’s first crewed flights. The missions will be SpaceX’s Demo – 2 mission and Boeing’s Crew Flight Test.
By launch date, the commercial crew astronauts will have trained for four years. Boeing invited my team out to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX to go through four years of astronaut training in four hours!
Things started off with a visit to Mission Control Center. Yes.. THE Mission Control Center.
I met up with Flight Director Dr. Bob Dempsey who gave me a very warm welcome and a thorough tour of MCC.
Dr. Bob Dempsey is a renowned astronomer who became a NASA Flight Director in 2005. He was the lead flight director for Expedition 15 and worked several ISS assembly missions as well. He now works with Boeing to operate the vehicle and get it ready for its flights.
Talking with Bob, I got a real sense of how tightly NASA is working with Boeing and SpaceX to get crew, equipment and ground support ready for the next generation of US spaceflight. Despite my best attempts to throw Bob off with some random implausible scenario, he would have a solid procedure in place and the kind of cool and calm reply you’d expect from a seasoned Flight Director.
Next, I went over to Building 9, home of the only full scale mock up of the International Space Station. Here I got my first peak at the Starliner.
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner is a capsule design capable of holding up to four NASA crew members and a paying passenger. It’s a fairly stout capsule, at least in comparison to the tall SpaceX Dragon 2 capsule.
Starliner is designed to operate on station for up to six months and has the potential to reach other destinations in low Earth orbit as well. From launch to docking with the ISS, total flight time is any where from 6 and a half hours to two days depending on orbital variables.
Next up was my chance to actually get inside the Starliner! And of course, that meant suiting up in my well worn Russian high altitude flight suit (a.k.a. the bane of my existence).
I held my breath as I squeezed through the hatch of the Starliner and was pleasantly surprised at how roomy it was once inside! There’s enough room to easily sit fully upright and do some sweet astronaut moves.
The initial configuration for the first crewed test flight has three seats. Two astronauts will be up on the left side when looking in from the hatch and one astronaut on the right with their head close to the Pilot’s feet. The amount of room in the capsule is extremely luxurious compared to the current ride to space, Russia’s Soyuz capsule. The Soyuz by contrast requires astronauts to basically have their knees in their chest and almost sit in each other’s laps.
The Starliner is unique in that it will be the first orbital capsule to land on land — a first for the US. (Note: Blue Origin is landing their suborbital New Shepard capsule on land). The Starliner will land in one of three places: Edward Air Force Base in California, White Sands in New Mexico or Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
The capsule will land using a trio of parachutes and has the added cushion (literally giant airbags) on the bottom of the capsule to aid in a soft and safe touchdown. Although under normal situations, the Starliner will land on terra firma (a.k.a. the ground), it can also land safely in water. The crew and recovery team is trained and ready for either situation.
And for the BIGGEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE: I got the chance to actually try on Boeing’s space suit. Yup, you heard right. I hung up the orange and went Boeing blue for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train in their simulators.
They gave me some official astronaut underwear, and then I finally got to lay my eyes on the space suit that will take humans to space next year!
And there it was. The Boeing blue space suit laying on the ground, just laying there, waiting for me to put it on. I was shocked at how amazingly small the suit is. It lays surprisingly flat. It’s not bulky at all. As a matter of fact, it’s much lighter weight and more comfortable than my suit.
I cannot express how light and mobile this suit feels. I’ve even removed the rubber liner from my Russian VMSK-45, so it’s just the cloth outer shell. EVEN THAT feels heavier and less mobile than this.
The suit is designed to be pressurized up to 3.5 PSI (24 kpa) but is not designed to be a full extra vehicular activity suit. This means it’s a flight suit meant to be worn on ascent and descent, and protect astronauts in case of a loss of pressure of the space craft.
The suit is surprisingly easy to get on. Boeing says it can be put on in just seven minutes with no outside help. That is amazing. Of course, I told them I wanted to beat that record. But despite my insistence, I was helped into the suit.
First I put my feet into the legs, much like a pair of pants, and got my feet situated into the footies. Then I was instructed to take a seat to finish the job: Arms in, followed by ducking through the neck hole. The suit is then zipped from the back much like a wet suit.
The gloves are often considered the most difficult part of designing a space suit. It’s proven to be a huge challenge to make gloves that can both operate under large pressure differentials while also maintaining dexterity. Despite these challenges, putting the gloves on felt no different than a very well made pair of light winter gloves. They’re thin, light weight, and do not impede on movement in any tangible way. I was thoroughly impressed.
All in all my first time putting on a REAL space suit went much much smoother than my first attempt at slipping on my own suit, which may or may not have ended in a near death experience for me…
Now that I was fully suited up, it was time to put my skills to test! Lucky for me, I’ve had YEARS of practice by playing Kerbal Space Program… so I figured this would be easy!
Flying the Starliner was actually quite easy… believe it or not. The controls were really well laid out and the switches and knobs were very easy to operate, even while wearing those gloves! This again is in huge contrast to astronauts aboard a Soyuz capsule who literally have to poke some buttons with a stick because they’re outside of arms reach! (seriously)
Even though the Starliner is an American made vehicle, there are no cupholders. Trust me, I looked.
Despite it’s ease of use, no human intervention will be necessary to rendezvous and dock with the ISS. The astronauts pretty much get to sit back and relax! There’s a few screens in front of the pilots that had a lot of important information on it, but I figure we could eventually talk them into putting on Netflix or something.
That being said, the commander and pilot can take over at any time and take over control of the spacecraft with the flip of a switch. The astronauts are thoroughly trained for every single second of flight including the actual docking with the ISS.
Finally, I was invited to spend a little more time with a simulator, but this time I was on my own. Jim would act as mission control and it was my turn to really wow them. I coined some terms with some of their software interface… such as this large cone that would show you where you needed to be for a nominal docking. When I accidentally flew well outside of the cone, I proclaimed, “I’m well outside the cone of shame.” Feel free to use this term with your astronauts Boeing ;)
I left Johnson Space Center thrilled and extremely excited for our future. It’s a sharp contrast compared to just a few years ago when the reality of the Space Shuttle program having ended had fully sunk in.
Visiting Kennedy Space Center felt like a graveyard of greatness. All these amazing things we HAD done. There were few plans truly on the table for human spaceflight to return to the cape, but it all just felt so far away. But now, here we are. At the dawn of a new era of human spaceflight. After today’s exciting announcement of who’s flying with commercial crew, I genuinely couldn’t be more excited.
Thank you so much to Boeing for sharing your world with me, for almost bringing tears to my eyes several times, and helping me get even more excited than I was already for the Commercial Crew Program (something I didn’t think was possible).
And you’d better believe we’ll be down at the cape to watch the first sets of crew launches! So tune in right here to stay up to date with the progress leading up to that momentous occasion! You can help make financially support the Everyday Astronaut crew by becoming a Patron to ensure we have the resources necessary to bring you the best access to this new space race!
Make sure you’re subscribed to our YouTube channel so you can see the full cut of my Boeing Starliner experience!
Photos and video by Michael Bowden and Ben Stineman.
Thanks everybody, that’s gonna do it for me, I’m Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut. Bringing space down to Earth for everyday people.