Sunita Williams among 9 astronauts to fly into space from US soil

She will be training to fly the initial test flights for America's first commercially built spacecraft the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Dragon

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After completing two missions to the orbiting laboratory, astronaut Sunita Williams is continuing her career in space on Earth as a member of NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability. She was recently named by NASA as one of the nine astronauts for its first human spaceflight programme from the US soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.

Sunita Williams

Back in 2015, she was one of the four astronauts who were chosen by NASA o train and prepare for commercial space flights that will return American launches to US soil and further open up low-Earth orbit transportation to the private sector. Since the discontinuation of NASA’s Space Shuttle programme in 2011, US astronauts have had to rely on Russian shuttles to get into orbit.

The goal of the commercial crew programme is safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station from the US through a public-private approach. Williams, 52, has spent 50 hours and 40 minutes outside the ISS and part of her new job is to verify that the companies’ spacecraft can launch, manoeuvre in orbit and dock to stationary spacecraft like the ISS.

Credit: NASA

The astronauts will fly on the spacecraft developed by Elon Musk-owned SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and global aviation firm Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, as part of the US space agency’s Commercial Crew programme to send humans to the ISS on private US spacecraft.

Williams has been named for the Boeing programme to the ISS — the first test flight scheduled to take place in the middle of 2019. “For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Born in Euclid (Ohio), Williams came to NASA from the Navy where she was a test pilot and rose to the rank of captain before retiring. Since her selection as an astronaut in 1998, she has spent 322 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for Expeditions 14/15 and Expeditions 32/33, commanded the space station and performed seven spacewalks, the US space agency said in a statement.

“The men and women we assign to these first flights are at the forefront of this exciting new time for human spaceflight,” said Mark Geyer, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “It will be thrilling to see our astronauts lift off from American soil, and we can’t wait to see them aboard the ISS,” he added.

Each test flight will provide data on the performance of the rockets, spacecraft, ground systems, and operations to ensure the systems are safe to fly astronauts. After successful completion of the flight tests with crew, NASA will review flight data to verify that the systems meet the agency’s safety and performance certification requirements and are ready to begin regular servicing missions to the space station, the US space agency said.