This veteran NASA astronaut has tried SpaceX and Boeing's new spaceships and spacesuits — here's what she thinks

NASA/Kim ShiflettNASA astronaut and Commercial Crew member Sunita Williams in March 2018.

After nearly a decade of effort, SpaceX and Boeing are preparing to launch the first NASA astronauts on commercial spaceships.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon may fly their first crews in December and January. The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, as it’s called, is to taxi astronauts to and from the $US150-billion International Space Station. Accomplishing that would close an increasingly expensive gap in the US’ space travel capabilities.

In 2015, NASA selected astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams and three other “space pioneers” to test then fly the new spaceships.

“Five years ago, this would have been like, ‘No way, what are we doing asking commercial providers to be able to do this?'” Williams told Business Insider. “Now it feels like a natural progression for space travel.”

Williams has flown inside three spaceships, served as commander of the International Space Station, lived in orbit for 322 days, and piloted 30 different types of aircraft for the Navy.

This extensive resume has come in handy over the past three years, as Williams has worked closely with Boeing and SpaceX. She and her colleagues have poked and prodded spacecraft mock-ups, tried on new spacesuits, fiddled with control panels, tested out simulators, and provided frank and sometimes critical feedback.

Here’s why NASA needs Boeing and SpaceX, what Williams thinks of their new ships and suits, and how she’s preparing to blast off into the uncharted territory of a new space race.

Williams said she and the rest of the “Commercial Crew Cadre,” as they’re called — astronauts Doug Hurley, Eric Boe, and Bob Behnken — have worked “hand-in-hand” with Boeing and SpaceX since being assigned to the program by NASA in 2015.

SpaceXNASA astronauts who will be the first to fly inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Left to right: Doug Hurley, Eric Boe, Bob Behnken, and Sunita Williams.

NASA started the Commercial Crew program to replace its space shuttles. The cost of shuttle launches was high: Each mission cost about $US1.5 billion, including development costs, and 14 astronauts died. The 135th and final mission launched in July 2011.

Dave MosherSpace shuttle Atlantis at Launchpad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Source: Nature

So when NASA sent Williams to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2012, the agency had to buy her a seat on a Russian Soyuz spaceship. To this day, Soyuz is still the only spacecraft able to journey to and from the ISS.

NASA/Victor ZelentsovSunita Williams trains inside a Russian Soyuz TMA-05M spaceship in July 2012.

Russia has used its monopoly to drive up Soyuz flight prices. In 2011, a round-trip ticket cost about $US22 million; today, it costs NASA about $US81 million to fly one astronaut.

NASA/Joel KowskyRussia’s Soyuz TMA-19M rocket launches a crew of three toward the International Space Station on December 15, 2015.

Source: Business Insider

In anticipation of this pickle, NASA started a competition to encourage companies to build their own spaceships. Boeing and SpaceX came out on top. “Competition is positive. It makes people do things a little smarter, potentially a little faster,” Williams said.

NASASierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft in an aerodynamic test as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program.

Combined, Boeing and SpaceX won nearly $US8 billion in NASA contracts to develop and launch new spaceships. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner can carry seven people, which is as many as the space shuttle.

BoeingAn illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon can also seat up to seven space-flyers and last seven months at the space station.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)An illustration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, also known as Dragon 2 or Dragon V2, orbiting Earth. (The first Dragon was a cargo and supply ship not designed to carry people.)

Williams’ path into the seat of these commercial spaceships began in December 2006, when she made her first flight into orbit aboard space shuttle Discovery.

NASAA portrait of NASA astronaut Sunita Williams in a bulky External Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit in September 2004.

She lived and worked aboard the International Space Station with two Russian cosmonauts, returning home on space shuttle Atlantis in April 2007.

NASAThe crew of the Expedition 15 space station crew. Left to right: NASA astronaut Sunita Williams; cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov.

Williams says her initial work on Commercial Crew was mostly PowerPoint presentations and discussions. Only in the past year and a half have astronauts started working with simulators and real hardware. “It’s been hot and heavy in the last six months,” she said.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)A test of SpaceX’s Dragon v2 capsule thrusters.

Models of the spaceships that will launch astronauts are now nearing completion or undergoing testing.

BoeingThe state of construction for Boeing’s first CST-100 Starliner spaceship in March 2018.

The controls are one huge difference Williams has noticed when comparing the Crew Dragon and Starliner to older spaceships. “The space shuttle was just littered with switches,” she said. “You look at the cockpit, and there’s switches everywhere.”

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner simplify that labyrinth into a few glowing screens and buttons. “That just makes things easier, and makes things a little bit more changeable,” Williams said. “Upgrades can happen a little bit easier, because it’s software.”

SpaceXSpaceX says Crew Dragon’s displays ‘will provide real-time information’ on anything ranging ‘from Dragon’s position in space, to possible destinations, to the environment on board.’

Physical switches are mostly absent in the new spacecraft, since their computers, sensors, and algorithms automate most tasks, especially tedious ones. But Williams says she and the crew felt Boeing and SpaceX’s ships showed them too little on-screen information, at least initially — and told the companies as much.

NASA/Dimitri GerondidakisSunita Williams uses a Boeing CST-100 Starliner display trainer

“Automation can help us, but then you do have to watch out. One of the things we talked to the both partners about: ‘How do I check this?'” Williams said. “I have a timeline in front of me — how do I know these things are happening? Where do I check? Where do I look? What’s my confirming cue?”

NASA/Dimitri GerondidakisThe Commercial Crew Cadre examine an RL10 rocket engine that Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship will use.

“The big thing is you want to keep situational awareness. You don’t want to be fat, dumb, and happy in there and something bad’s going on,” she said.

SpaceXA spacesuit-clad person inside a mock-up of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon looks up at the capsule’s buttons, switches, and digital displays.

“Then when something is not going as planned, you know how to at least get the vehicle to a safe state,” she added. “We can then talk to mission control in Hawthorne or here in Houston and say, ‘Hey, what do we do next, and how do we handle this problem?'”

NASA Langley Research Center/Ron BeardUSAF personnel train to rescue astronauts from SpaceX’s Crew Drago spaceship.

Williams says physical switches and buttons help ensure that astronauts can control a spacecraft in an emergency, such as loss of power. “It is a spacecraft, and there are some things that have to happen whether or not the electrons are flowing,” she said.

SpaceXNASA astronaut Eric Boe evaluates SpaceX’s Crew Dragon mock-up.

“There will be some manual capabilities just to ensure safety and mission success,” Williams added.

SpaceXButtons and switches shown below digital displays in a mock-up of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.

These manual capabilities include “things that you really, really, really want to happen in case everything else dies,” such as the deployment of parachutes for landing.

SpaceXSpaceX performs a parachute test for its Crew Dragon spaceship.

Of course, every spaceship needs a spacesuit to protect astronauts if air starts leaking from the ship, or there’s some other emergency. Williams said Boeing’s and SpaceX’s suits are similar to the Sokol suits, which Russia designed for its Soyuz capsule.

NASASunita Williams dons a Russian Sokol spacesuit in March 2007.

The Sokol “is an awesome suit,” Williams said. But she noted that the new SpaceX and Boeing designs “look a little bit better” and are more comfortable, thanks to newer materials.

SpaceXThe spacesuit and Crew Dragon spaceship that SpaceX will use to launch NASA astronauts into space.

“The SpaceX one has like a motorcycle helmet that comes down and in clips in easy,” she said. “An outer cover layer makes the suit look a little bit more slim-lined.”

Elon Musk/SpaceX; InstagramA model of a Crew Dragon spacesuit and capsule.

The CST-100 Starliner suit takes a different approach. “The blue suit that Boeing has, it has a zipper in the front that will accommodate a straighter posture” when pressurised with air, Williams said.

NASA Kennedy/FlickrBoeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacesuit.

Each suit is designed to keep astronauts tucked into their seat in a reclined position, which provides extra safety during launch, a hard landing, or a crash.

BoeingA crash-test dummy helps an engineer test the safety of a seat for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner.

“You’re going to land essentially on your back,” Williams said. “You want to be able to take that impact.”

NASA Langley Research Center/David C. BowmanA Boeing CST-100 Starliner spaceship prototype during a landing test.

“Soyuz has seats that are moulded to every body to help with the landing,” she added. “Both of these companies have seats that keep that in mind.”

NASA Kennedy/FlickrBoeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacesuit.

“They’re both different, and they’re both better than suits that we’ve had in the past,” Williams said. “It’s gonna be fun to put a new spacesuit on.”

SpaceXSunita Williams tests mock-ups of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship and spacesuit in April 2018.

Getting into and out of each spacecraft’s 3-foot-by-3-foot door isn’t easy. “You climb in the door, you can’t just walk in,” Williams said. “The door is small because you don’t want a humongous door that goes out to space.” (The bigger the opening, the greater the risk of leaks and other problems.)

Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesA guest explores the Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2014 during its debut by SpaceX.

Though SpaceX’s and Boeing’s spaceships are roomier than a Soyuz, it’s still pretty cramped. “You sort of feel like you’re crawling around,” Williams said. “It will feel like there’s enough space when we get up into space. It helps when you can float and move away from things.”

SpaceXEach SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule will have four windows and seats made of high-grade carbon-fibre composites.

The seat designs aren’t finalised, so Williams has yet to see how comfortable they will be. “I haven’t seen any leather seats yet,” she said, joking. “You’re going to be sitting on it or strapped into it; the thing it has to do is provide you protection.”

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)The interior of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule showing seats for five astronauts, though the craft can support up to seven.

As for a bathroom? “There’s limited amount of toilet-type stuff in there. There’s a way to go for both companies, but it’s not the best,” she said.

BoeingAstronauts train inside a mock-up of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship.

“The best thing is probably waiting till you get to the space station,” Williams added.

NASANASA astronaut Sunita Williams smiles in her spacesuit in January 2011 while training for spaceflight.

The Commercial Crew program will launch uncrewed ships first. SpaceX is aiming to do that in September and Boeing in October. If successful, crewed launches will follow on December 31 (Boeing) and January 17 (SpaceX).

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)SpaceX’s CRS-14 mission launches cargo toward the International Space Station on April 2, 2018.


“We’ve gotten into the cockpit in both spacecraft. We’ve run through parts of the profile, from launch to rendezvous docking, un-docking, and [atmospheric] entry. But everything’s not been tied up, not quite yet,” Williams said. She didn’t say which company’s spaceship is her favourite.

SpaceXSpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship undergoes testing for electromagnetic interference in a special chamber.

In fact, crewed launch dates may slip to mid-2019. Williams said she expects NASA to announce her official mission selection this summer, and from there about a year of more deliberate mission training will follow.

SpaceXAn illustration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship docking with the International Space Station.

NASA originally wanted crewed launches to happen by 2017, but delays snowballed due to the agency’s stringent safety concerns. It wants Boeing and SpaceX’s spacecraft to have less than a 1-in-200 chance of killing a crew in an accident — three times less than the space shuttle.

NASA/Frankie MartinKathleen O’Brady, a NASA certification systems engineer, reviews documents for Boeing and SpaceX’s new spacecraft.

Source: Business Insider

“There will be what’s called flight readiness reviews for all of these flights, and people will look at the risks,” Williams said. “There’ll be some explaining to do if there’s any outstanding risk that hasn’t been at least discussed and looked at and weighed.”

NASA/Leif HeimboldEngineers test a zip line that may help NASA’s Commercial Crew astronauts escape from a launchpad in an emergency.

Williams and her colleagues are clear-eyed about the risk they’re taking. In fact, two of them — Behnken and Hurley — were on the runway waiting for space shuttle Columbia’s landing when they heard it had broken apart during atmospheric reentry.

NASAA portrait of NASA’s STS-107 mission crew members, who died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003.

Source: Aviation Week

“Spaceflight is inherently dangerous. Something that we’ve never thought of could potentially happen,” Williams said.

NASAA piece of wreckage recovered from the Jan. 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster.

“This is our profession and this is what we’re supposed to do. I think everybody will be up to the challenge and ready to go when the spacecraft are ready,” she said. “Everybody believes, or they wouldn’t be here, that what we’re doing is for a bigger purpose.”

NASASunita Williams positions a communications headset during training in September 2011.

NASA has a little more than a year to approve a crewed launch, or it risks temporarily losing access to the space station. There are enough Soyuz flights to last NASA through the fall of 2019, and Russia wants three years of notice to prepare new missions.

NASAA three-module Soyuz spacecraft.

Source: Business Insider

NASA is building its own rocket and spacecraft, called Space Launch System, but that program won’t fly its first astronauts until June 2022 at the earliest.

NASAAn artist’s depiction of NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spaceship being assembled in a hangar.


Overall, Williams said the International Space Station program is a model for “working with people that you weren’t necessarily really friends with at one point in time.” She added: “Russian cosmonauts are itching to fly on these spacecraft as well, and those are the ultimate signs of trust: We go jump in a Soyuz, we trust these guys to do the right thing, and they trust us as well.”

Gagarin Cosmonaut Training CenterNASA astronaut Sunita Williams (right), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide (left), and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko (center) before launching to space together in 2012.

“We’re trusting these companies to do the right thing as well,” she said. “All that collaboration, all that sharing of technology and information, and understanding each other along the way, I think those are hugely important and it’s going to help us continue to explore.”

SpaceXCommercial Crew astronauts Doug Hurley and Sunita Williams sit inside a Crew Dragon mock-up during a visit at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Williams said she’s met with Elon Musk multiple times and discussed his hopes and dreams. “I’m hoping along the same lines that he is, that all of this type of stuff opens spaceflight to many, many, many more people,” she said. “I feel like it’s almost on the verge, like when aircraft went commercial.”

“I think he understands that this program needs to be successful so that people all around the world would be happy to get in one of his spacecraft,” Williams said of Musk. “The technology is there. It’s time, and I’m hoping in our lifetime we see more people go to space and eventually somebody to Mars.”

SpaceX/YouTubeReusable spaceships might enable SpaceX to colonize Mars.

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