Needham's Sunita Williams will pilot the Boeing Starliner spacecraft in May/ Credit: NASA

With a launch date set for sometime in May, Needham native Sunita Williams is scheduled to blast off into space for the third time. On this trip Williams, a veteran astronaut who has logged 322 days in space and 50 hours of spacewalks, will be piloting the ship — and she will connect with Needham students while in space.

“What’s new for me is to fly a brand new spacecraft and to test it out on the way up, dock it to the Space Station and make sure we can shut it down and start it back up, and then bring it back home,” Williams said in an interview with the Observer. 

In her first two missions she was flown to space and back by other pilots, first on a space shuttle and later on a Soyuz (Russian) capsule. 

Williams will fly with commander Butch Wilmore on the test flight of the Boeing Starliner, a spacecraft that has been in the works for more than a decade. Last week NASA announced the May mission, which has been delayed for years as Boeing struggled with dozens of technical problems. The Starliner has made two test flights without crews on board, using a flight-test dummy named Rosie. This is the first crewed flight to test the capabilities of the spacecraft and certify it for future missions. 

Astronaut Sunita Williams will pilot a test flight of the Starliner/ Credit: Needham Observer

“What’s different about this spacecraft is it’s our second commercial provider to get to the International Space Station from the United States,” said Williams, noting that NASA’s other commercial provider, SpaceX, has already made several crewed flights there. 

When they arrive at the Space Station after 24 hours in flight, they will join a crew that includes astronauts from Japan, Denmark and Russia. “This is all a great opportunity for folks internationally to work together,” said Williams. “Our Russian colleagues up there are our best friends. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it is here.”

After a planned eight days aboard the ISS there will be no splashdown and no runway when the Starliner lands on solid ground in the southwest U.S. 

“You’re a little bit more nervous on the way back home. There’s no go-backs,” said Williams. “When you’re doing a rendezvous (in space), if you don’t like what you’re doing you could go backwards and fly away and get everything settled down and come back again. 

“The spacecraft has a great amount of automation, and that’s the goal that we want the spacecraft to be in our future,” she said. ”But the crew is the last line of defense, and we have the ability to get in there and fly manually if we need to. This test flight allows us to shake out all that manual flying just to make sure that if anything ever goes wrong, we’ll have that reassurance of the crew being the backup.”

The landing procedure includes a complex deployment of heat shields, thrusters, parachutes and airbags, some of them jettisoned over the desert.

Williams said the Starliner has no landing gear. “It’s not an airplane. It’s a little bit different than the space shuttle, which has wings. We’re actually just rolling and changing the lift factor to get it to land in this certain place. We have guidance needles which show us how we’re supposed to roll it.” 

While in space Williams plans to connect with students at Sunita Williams Elementary School. She’s been in contact with Superintendent Dan Gutekanst, who asked her to include other schools. 

“Dan has told me that I need to talk to the high school, which I absolutely do. I need to talk to kids who are graduating and going on further. We’re hoping to do a Zoom or Webex link while I’m up in space so I can interact with all these kids.”

Williams recognizes that as one of the small number of female astronauts she is a role model. “I hope I’m doing a good job, that’s the biggest thing that worries me. I hope there will be many, many that will follow in my footsteps insofar as dreaming big and just going for it and pursuing it,” she said.

 “If you have dreams or aspirations to do something, you can do it. It doesn’t matter who you are. I’ve been lucky but I’ve also never accepted no for an answer. I’m stubborn.” Williams thinks careers in space exploration will flourish. “I’ve got to move over and other kids have got to take my place. ”

She said her mission on the Starliner is part of the future of the space industry. “I think this is opening the door for more and more people to have access to space. If you’re graduating from high school, graduating from college, interested in learning all about that and having a job in the space industry, it’s there for you.”  

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