NASA has added a third astronaut to the crew preparing to fly aboard the first operational mission of Boeing’s Starliner capsule to the International Space Station: Jeanette Epps.
The mission’s departure date will depend on the progress of the vehicle’s certification process; Starliner must ace two test flights before Epps’ mission, the capsule’s first operational flight, can blast off to the space station. The trip will be Epps’ first spaceflight; she had been assigned to launch in 2018 but was reassigned without public explanation. Epps will join NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada, who were assigned to the flight in 2018.
“I’m super excited to join Suni Williams and Josh Cassada on the first operational Boeing crew mission to the International Space Station,” Epps said in a video posted to Twitter today (Aug. 25). “I’ve flown in helicopters with Suni flying and I’ve flown in the backseat of a T38 with Josh flying and they are both wonderful people to work with, so I’m looking forward to the mission.”
Epps holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering and worked for the CIA for seven years before joining the astronaut corps as part of the class of 2009, according to a NASA statement. Since becoming a full-fledged astronaut, she has worked with space station crews from the ground, including as lead CAPCOM, responsible for communicating between mission control and astronauts in flight.
“A huge congratulations to Dr. Jeanette Epps for joining the Starliner team,” Williams said in a video posted to Twitter. “Looking forward to working with you and flying with you.”
Williams is the veteran of the crew, with two prior spaceflights under her belt; she was also one of the first four NASA astronauts to be assigned to work with commercial launch providers in 2015. Like Epps, Cassada will be making his first spaceflight.
Epps was previously assigned to join Expeditions 56 and 57, in which she would have spent six months in orbit in late 2018. However, about six months before that crew launched, NASA announced it was substituting Serena Auñón-Chancellor, a medical doctor, into the crew in place of Epps.
The agency declined to offer a reason for the decision, which drew controversy at the time in part because Epps was on track to become the first Black astronaut to fly a full-fledged, six-month space station expedition rather than a short-duration mission. (She will likely now lose that title to Victor Glover, who will fly on SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon mission, called Crew-1, currently scheduled to launch Oct. 23.)
Shortly after the flight launched without her, Epps said publicly that she wasn’t aware of the reason for the reassignment and that she wasn’t experiencing any health or family issues that would interfere with flight. At the time, she also expressed concern that some of her training — the training tailored to the Russian Soyuz vehicle that NASA astronauts have relied on since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011 — would go to waste.
Indeed, her new assignment means that Epps will now need to learn a new vehicle, Boeing’s Starliner capsule, becoming familiar with every aspect of the spacecraft and its team.
“We look forward to seeing you around the factory soon along with your crewmates Suni and Josh as you meet the entire Boeing team who will give you a safe and reliable ride back and forth to space,” Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, who retired from NASA after flying on the final mission of the space shuttle, said in a video posted to Twitter. “It is so good to have you onboard.”
The vehicle has faced a rocky road to the space station. An uncrewed test flight in December 2019 suffered anomalies that NASA has said wouldn’t have threatened astronauts had they been on board, but did interfere with the vehicle’s plans to dock to the space station. Boeing is now preparing to fly a second uncrewed test flight to ensure those issues have been addressed; that flight is currently scheduled for late this year.
Then, Starliner will need to complete a crewed test flight, parallel to the mission SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule successfully conducted earlier this summer. The Starliner flight test will carry Ferguson and NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke to the orbiting laboratory for a brief stay, perhaps early next year.
Only after that mission’s successful completion can Epps, Williams and Cassada head to the launch pad. Cassada said he’s raring to fly with Epps — although he had a few ground rules for his new crewmember.
“Just a couple of things I think we need to get sorted out: I know we both claim Michigan. I’m not going to arm-wrestle you for it, I’ve seen you in the gym, so maybe we can split it,” Cassada said in a video posted to Twitter. “I think the only other thing we need to get sorted out is on the Starliner, I call shotgun.”