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Space: Sunita Williams makes history, pilots NASA’s Boeing spacecraft

Space: Sunita Williams makes history, pilots NASA’s Boeing spacecraft

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Virendra Pandit

New Delhi: Indian-American astronaut Sunita ‘Suni’ Williams-piloted spacecraft, carrying her fellow NASA astronaut Barry ‘Butch’ Wilmore, was launched on Wednesday toward the International Space Station (ISS) from the Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida, the USA, in a test flight that was earlier hit with multiple delays.

“Let’s go, Calypso,” Sunita, whose parents hailed from Gujarat, radioed the message to mission control minutes before liftoff, referring to the name of the Starliner capsule. “Take us to space and back.”

Starliner is scheduled to reach the ISS on Thursday at around 9.45 pm Indian Standard Time (12:15 pm ET), the media reported.
Sunita’s mother, Bonnie Pandya, told “NBC News” hours before liftoff that her daughter was in good spirits and was “so happy about going into space again.”

NASA, in an update on Thursday morning, said that both Sunita and Butch Wilmore are performing initial tests on the Starliner spacecraft in orbit. “The first six hours have been absolutely fascinating,” Butch who took manual control of the spacecraft told the mission center at NASA’s center in Houston.

NASA said that at 10:52 am ET, Boeing’s Starliner lifted off on a ULA Launch Atlas V rocket for the first time. The mission said the Crew Flight Test aims to certify the spacecraft for routine space travel to and from the ISS.

Sunita Williams, 58, scripted history by becoming the first female astronaut to fly on the first flight of a crewed spacecraft. The current flight also marks her third foray into space.

Starliner’s success will determine if the spacecraft will be certified to fly six-month astronaut missions to and from the ISS for NASA, something which Elon Musk’s SpaceX already does.

After a safe arrival at the ISS, Williams and Wilmore will join the Expedition 71 crew of NASA astronauts Michael Barratt, Matt Dominick, Tracy C. Dyson, and Jeanette Epps, and Roscosmos cosmonauts Nikolai Chub, Alexander Grebenkin, and Oleg Kononenko.

“Two bold NASA astronauts are well on their way on this historic first test flight of a brand-new spacecraft,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson after the Starliner launch.

Meanwhile, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk congratulated Boeing on the successful launch of its Starliner craft to space.

“Congratulations on a successful launch!” he said via X (formerly Twitter), as he retweeted the US space agency’s tweet that read “Starliner to the stars!”

Addressing a press conference in 2013 at the National Science Centre in New Delhi, Sunita told reporters that she carries the Bhagavad Gita and samosas during space flights.

Suni and Butch will remain in the ISS for about a week before undocking from the ISS to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. It will make a parachute and airbag-assisted landing in the southwestern United States on June 10, NASA said.

After the successful lift-off on Wednesday night, NASA chief Bill Nelson at a post-launch press conference, termed it as a “special moment.” “It’s another one of those great markers in history,” he said.

“Today’s launch is a milestone achievement for the future of spaceflight,” he posted on X, adding, “Butch and Suni–safe travels through the stars. See you back home.”

Both Boing and SpaceX received funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew program in 2014 to carry astronauts to the ISS after the US space agency retired its Space Shuttle Program in 2011. Boeing received over USD 4 billion in US federal funds to develop the Starliner, while SpaceX received about USD 2.6 billion.

SpaceX company’s Crew Dragon has performed 12 crewed missions to the ISS since its first launch on May 30, 2020. Before Wednesday’s launch, the last attempt to launch Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft was scrubbed on Saturday last, less than four minutes before blastoff from the Kennedy Space Centre, due to a ground system computer triggering an automatic abort command that shut down the launch sequence.

Sunita, from Needham, Massachusetts, earned a physical science degree from the US Naval Academy, and a master’s in engineering management from the Florida Institute of Technology.

Her first spaceflight was Expedition 14/15 (from December 2006 to June 2007) launching on space shuttle Discovery’s STS-116 mission to reach the ISS, according to NASA.

While onboard, Sunita established a world record for women at the time with four spacewalks. She concluded her tour of duty by returning to Earth with shuttle Atlantis’ STS-117 flight to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California on June 22, 2007.

Selected as an astronaut by NASA in June 1998, Sunita has spent 322 days in space on two missions and accumulated 50 hours and 40 minutes of cumulative EVA time on seven spacewalks.

She also worked with Roscosmos on its contribution to the space station and with the first Expedition crew.

Sixty-one-year-old, Barry Wilmore has logged 178 days in space and has 25 hours and 36 minutes on four spacewalks.


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