Q&A With Commercial Crew Astronaut Suni Williams

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — Suni Williams is one of four astronauts selected to train closely with Boeing and SpaceX as they develop a new generation of human-rated space systems in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Williams, Bob Behnken, Eric Boe and Doug Hurley will spend considerable time working with the new spacecraft development teams prior to piloted flight tests.

Williams talked recently about some of the expectations of the Commercial Crew Program, which is working with Boeing and SpaceX on their CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon systems, respectively, in a unique way focused on safety, reliability and cost-effectiveness.

A veteran of two long-duration missions to the International Space Station, Williams also talked about some of the things that make her career enjoyable and what it takes to become an astronaut.

What will make commercial crew a success?

Williams: We’re heading down this exciting path of commercial crew. It’s going to be successful and put to the test when we launch from Kennedy Space Center. Both companies, Boeing and SpaceX, are working hard already, starting to bend metal and actually make spacecraft. I’m excited to be part of the first couple of people who will probably fly one of these spacecraft so already we’ve started down the path. I think the test will be when we put those spacecraft on the launch pad and are ready to light them off and send them to the space station.

What excites you about the commercial crew approach to spacecraft development?

Williams: We have the opportunity as the commercial crew cadre to go to both Boeing and SpaceX and check out what they’re doing and how they’re coming along with their spacecraft. I think what’s really exciting is seeing the new technologies that they’re incorporating into their spacecraft. These are things that are much different from both space shuttle and Soyuz, because they’re taking advantage of the technology from the last two decades or so. Some of the ideas are brand new, it makes us think out of the box from how we’ve done spacecraft and how we’ve flown spacecraft before. So I’m pretty excited to see these new technologies be incorporated into these new spacecraft.

Why use test pilots for the first commercial crew missions?

Williams: This will be the first time in a generation that we are going to launch a new [human-rated] spacecraft. I think what goes hand-in-hand with putting the right people on the first couple of missions to really shake out the spacecraft and make sure that they’ll be ready to fly for the next generation of folks who are going to be flying these for quite some time. Part of that is putting test pilots on the first couple missions. As part of the test pilot curriculum, we learn a lot about the rigors and the methodology of testing in a very stepwise fashion, looking to approach the boundaries step by step and not jumping out too fast too quickly and exceeding any boundaries of the vehicle or the human in the loop.

I think part of the methodology of selecting test pilots for the first couple flights is based on the rigors that we learned in test pilot school. So to look at these spacecraft in a wide variety of aspects and really go down the path and make sure they’re really good for the next generation.

Will only test pilots be able to fly these spacecraft?

Williams: After the first couple missions of each spacecraft, I don’t think we’re going to have to have test pilots as the prime operator of either of the commercial crew vehicles. I think the idea is to make sure all of the bugs are worked out as much as possible and be able to turn those spacecraft over to anybody in the astronaut office to be able to fly.

The commercial crew missions will allow astronauts twice as much time for research. Describe conducting experiments on the International Space Station.

Williams: Conducting research on the space station is very interesting and sometimes challenging. It’s a whole different kind of laboratory than here on the ground. Of course, we’re doing similar experiments than we do on the ground but we have to do them in space which means there’s different processes, different materials, there’s different considerations – things float around – so you have to be a little bit worried how you’re actually putting the experiment together. Sometimes they take a little bit longer, sometimes they’re just observational experiments where we set up and then we make observations just using the background of microgravity to see how it affects the experiment. But it’s challenging, so one more crewmember up on the space station helping out is going to probably double the amount of space research that we’re doing right now.

What do you take with you when you go to space?

Williams: So I’ve been to space two times and I always like to take something that reminds me of home. My first mission I wasn’t sure how much stuff I could take or what I could take, you know it’s always the first time, so I took a little paper cutout of my dog and I had him inside of my crew notebook. My second time I knew a little more about how much space I had so I had a little stuffed animal of him, so I got to have him inside my sleep station and slept with him every night.

For the next mission, I don’t know, I don’t think I can take anything bigger than the stuffed animal I already had so I might have to get one more stuffed animal. I actually left my little stuffed guy up there with one of my crewmates who was staying on the space station so this time if I take a stuffed Gorby I think I might have to bring him back home with me.

What does it mean to work at NASA and be an astronaut? 

Williams: Working for NASA and being an astronaut is really exciting, and it’s fun first and foremost. I have never felt like I have “a job.” I go to work every day and it’s something new and exciting and sometimes it means actually getting on a rocket and going to space. There are a lot of cool things we do and it’s not only just us who are astronauts who are working for NASA. It’s people who are doctors and scientists and engineers and veterinarians who all work together to make up a space mission that eventually allows us to get up on a rocket and go do experiments in space up on the space station.

When did you begin to think you wanted to be an astronaut?

Williams: When I was a kid I was thinking about what I wanted to do when I grow up, I think everybody thinks about that. My dad’s a doctor, so I was thinking maybe I want to be a veterinarian, but I really just didn’t know, honestly, when I was a little kid. I didn’t even really know when I was graduating from high school. So I had the opportunity to go to the Naval Academy, and after that I learned how to fly airplanes and helicopters. That led me to be interested in engineering and being interested in learning how to test fly aircraft. Later, test pilot school brought me down to NASA’s Johnson Space Center and that’s the first time I ever met an astronaut, John Young. He talked about landing on the moon and I thought, wow, he had to fly something like a helicopter to land on the moon and maybe I have those skills too. That was the very first time I thought about being an astronaut.

What should this new class of astronauts expect?

Williams: We’re getting ready to have a new class of astronauts, a new selection in 2017. I’m so excited for them, they’re going to have a big path of stuff to do in front of them. First of all, they’ll probably be long-duration astronauts living on the International Space Station flying up there on commercial crew vehicles or Soyuz and then probably flying on the Orion spacecraft that’s going to take them farther than low-Earth orbit. So I would suggest for them, of course, to prepare and get ready.

What advice do you have for anyone selected to become an astronaut?

Williams: So for the next group of astronauts that’s going to be selected in 2017, I would give you a couple of pieces of advice: First of all, buckle your seatbelt, it’s going to be a wild and crazy ride. You’re going to be working with teams all over the world and you’re going to be going to places that are just beyond what we are doing today. So, get ready for that adventure, stay healthy and get ready.