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Crew Flight Test: The Mission

Season 1Episode 331Apr 12, 2024

Flight directors discuss NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test and the operations behind this historic mission. HWHAP Episode 331.

Houston We Have a Podcast Ep331 CFT: The Mission

Houston We Have a Podcast Ep. 331: Crew Flight Test: The Mission

From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.

On episode 331, flight directors discuss NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test and the operations behind this historic mission. This episode was recorded on March 5, 2024.

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Host (Leah Cheshier): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 331, “CFT: The Mission.” I’m Leah Cheshier and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, and astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight and more.

NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test, or CFT, will be the first flight of humans on a brand new spacecraft. NASA astronauts Sunita, or Suni Williams, and Barry, or Butch Wilmore, will be the first human passengers on Starliner. They will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V Rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Their destination is the International Space Station, where they are slated to live and work for about a week. They will evaluate Starliner and its systems before returning to Earth for landing on land in the western United States. Teams from Boeing and NASA will staff the mission control rooms here at Johnson Space Center throughout the flight. NASA Flight Directors, Mike Lammers, call sign Saturn Flight, and Ed Van Cise, call sign Carbon Flight, have been working with the Boeing teams over the last several years and will serve as flight directors for the Starliner spacecraft. We sat down to talk with them about the mission, their roles, and what it’s like to work in mission control with a commercial spacecraft. Let’s get started.


Host: Hi, Mike and Ed, thank you so much for joining us today on Houston We Have a Podcast.

Mike Lammers: Good afternoon.

Ed Van Cise: Glad to be here.

Host: Yeah. We’re really excited. We’re really looking forward to the CFT Crew Flight Test. First flight of astronauts on Starliner, Boeing’s spacecraft, to the International Space Station. And before we get into the flight itself, I want to learn a little bit more about each of you and your backgrounds. So can you tell me what the start of your NASA journey looked like? How did you get involved here?

Mike Lammers: It’s Mike. I’ll start first. So I graduated from college from Iowa State University. And I’ve been here since. I spent a little bit of time at Goddard, but been here since 1996. Like many of us, done a few things. So I started in crew training for the International Space Station, actually, when that was being built, did simulators for them and then kind of a lot of us had a lot of experience with the flight software. Went over to flight control and did GNC, Guidance Navigation and Control. So all the rocket engines and gyros and GPS receivers to keep things knowing where space station is. And was a flight controller for that. I was a flight controller for another group that kind of did multiple jobs for the space station, when we tried to make the team a little bit smaller on nights and weekends. So I did comm systems and cameras, and also the computers and the data systems as well. And actually, Ed over here did that too. And then worked in management for a while. And I’ve been on a flight director since 2008, so I was class of 2008, so I’m probably one of the higher time people in the flight director office. So I’ve done a lot of space station and a lot of Starliner and also some Artemis I. I was on console for some of the flight going and coming back from the Moon.

Flight Director Mike Lammers. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz
Flight Director Mike Lammers. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

So we try to work multiple spaceships, which is a little bit unique. I think around here, most people are tagged towards one program. In our office, we do multiple programs, which gives us really good exposure to a lot of different spacecraft, even on space station even, you know, I just talked about the ones that we fly, that we have teams that actually command and run.  But then we interact with all the partners. I worked with all of them, right? Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, Blue Origin, all the international partners. I’ve been to Moscow a bunch. I used to work with them quite a bit, a little bit less than now that I work on this program. But JAXA and SSIPC (JAXA Control Center), Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency. I worked on the automated transfer vehicle for a long time. So I’ve done, you know, just a bunch of really sort of interesting things in my career. And then Starliner’s probably one of the most interesting. So glad to talk about it.

Host: Yeah, that’s a very interesting career. That covers a whole lot. And I think it’s really important to see different perspectives from different spacecrafts so you can carry lessons learned from other missions, whether good or bad into your next flight. Amazing. Ed, what about you?

Ed Van Cise: Yeah, so my story parallels it. Depending on how far back you want to go for an origin story, my interest in human spaceflight started back in third grade when Challenger was lost in ‘86. And that was a unique thing because, you know, at that age, you’re old enough to recognize what’s going on. And of course, there was no internet back then, so it was just constant replays on TV. We didn’t watch it in school, so I came home to learning about it. But at that age, you don’t understand the human tragedy, so it’s just the obsession that people seem to have with that. And that it was a really important thing, and it left a mark. So a couple years later, I’m from Michigan originally, went down to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and the Air Force Museum there. And I was interested in Challenger. There was a book on the first 25 shuttle flights, and at the end, of course, was Challenger was number 25. And it ended with an excerpt from the Rogers Commission Report that talked about how, at least in my mind, it personified the spacecraft to, had plenty of knowledge of what was happening to it, and it was still doing everything it possibly could to keep the crew alive within it. So it talks about just the control system going to full extremes and everything to try to keep the crew on its path. And that really set in my head that we went from beyond just a fascinating thing to something like, you know, human beings had created some sort of marvel that was advanced enough to go do space things and do everything I possibly could to keep them alive.

So, although it was pretty cool on it from there, it was space camp a couple of times. I guess even when I was in eighth grade, I said I wanted to go work in at JSC. I annoyed one-year predecessors and public affairs when I called right in the middle of a Hubble mission. I tried to learn how you could come to work down here, and they kindly explained, we’re kind of busy with the Hubble mission, and I said I didn’t really care. I wanted to know the answer.

Mike Lammers: Was it Rob Navias?

Ed Van Cise: It might’ve been okay. I’m sure Rob was here. But that turned me onto the whole co-op program. And also some influences from Charlie Duke, Apollo 16 Moonwalker, and his story that I heard at space camp.  But, anyway, I’m making the story too long. But co-op program, which is now the NASA Pathways intern program is what I sought after. Being from Michigan, the University of Michigan has a really good reputation as an aerospace engineering powerhouse, but also has a good relationship with JSC, and so it’s where I set my sights. My mom’s a Spartan, my dad’s a Gopher, so it was a Big-10 nightmare at our house. But graduated from Michigan in 2000, did start co-oping in ‘98. So I’m kind of a maybe, what? A year or two behind Mike. And I’m class of ’09, the flight director. So one year behind there. My path, so Mike took avionics computers, all the smart software type things as his path. So I’m being from Michigan and exposed to my dad’s a mechanical engineer. And so I did a lot of hands-on e type stuff growing up. So I landed a co-op job with the OSO group. They do structures for ISS, structures, mechanisms, maintenance, I like to say they build the space station and keep it together and that’s where I stayed after I hired on full time. And so as a co-op plug for the Pathways program. It is not coffee-getting and copy making at all. I taught the Expedition 1 crew as a co-op, leak pinpoint repair became a thing when I was a co-op, all sorts of good stuff. Then yeah, similar to Mike, I know I’m talking too long.

Flight Director Ed Van Cise. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz
Flight Director Ed Van Cise. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Mike Lammers: I’ll point out that Ed is also one of the world’s premier Jeep mechanics taken from his OSO days. He always shows us whatever project car he’s got going, tearing apart, back together.

Host: Building a Jeep, that’s my dream right now.

Ed Van Cise: Yeah. Now the orders will be coming in. But I was the OSO lead for STS-114, prior to the Columbia accident. And then afterwards shared the lead job with Christie Bertles. But after that I joined Mike as a Titan Flight Controller doing the nights and weekends, like he mentioned. Then I worked a bit in program integration trying to gain, we’ve had flight directors on this podcast before, and they talk about all the skills you need to have that are not technical. So getting those leadership and communication skills through different integration jobs, group lead leadership positions and things like that. And then got selected as a flight director in ’09. And the story there, so I’m not quite as high in seniority as Mike. Just remind him that.

Mike Lammers: You’re one of the longer term guys.

Ed Van Cise: Yeah, but not as long as some others. So projects that I’ve worked on besides, you know, everybody does space station operations, but I’ve done contingency spacewalks. The pre-planned ones that we have for space station, different software transitions, different cargo vehicles from the original cargo dragon to the round two cargo dragon that we have now, the HTV, the Japanese HTV vehicle.

Mike Lammers: Ed was the lead for the fastest spacewalk we ever did.

Ed Van Cise: I did do that, yeah. Contingency spacewalk. Went from failure to egress in less than 36 hours. That was EVA 21 in, I don’t remember the year necessarily offhand. I could figure it out, but I know it was two days before Mother’s Day. Because when the phone call, when Norm Knight, my boss, called and I saw photo, or the caller ID, showed it to my wife. She told me not to answer cause she knew Mother’s Day would be at risk. But we just went ahead and did the EVA before Mother’s Day. So just for her. Then, gosh, I was a Gateway lead flight director in the year 2000, so for about a year, which—

Mike Lammers: What’s Gateway?

Ed Van Cise: Gateway is the cislunar space station that we’re going to be putting into lunar orbit here in the not too distant future.

Host: Yeah, it’s coming up.

Ed Van Cise: Part of the Artemis program. So that was after I started working Starliner. So I’ve been working Starliner since 2016. I started about three or four months after Mike did on Starliner. And I did, Gateway in 2000—sorry, 2020. I know you’ve had Gateway on this podcast as well, so people could go learn about the details of that. But one of the unique things is the public-private partnerships that are involved with Gateway. And it’s not just international partners, kind of just like how space station has become and I was starting to work on it when it was going from a back-of-the-napkin-type idea into the PowerPoint phase, and then actually starting to cut a little bit of metal on HALO. And having had about four years of Starliner experience at the time, it wasn’t all a brand new concept of how to do development work, which was helpful to kind of get the flight operations directorate started, and how we’re going to do command and control for the Gateway missions. Then I’m doing Starliner ever since. I don’t know if you want to talk the long history of Starliner yet, but—

Host: Well, we’re going to get into Starliner. So we’ve just established you two have both been flight directors for a while now. What is that? Almost 16 years?

Mike Lammers: 16 years for me.

Host: Yeah. 15 for you Ed. 15 for me. So you’re both NASA flight directors though, but for this mission, you are assigned as Starliner flight directors. There’s a difference here. Even though you are NASA employees, you’re a flight director for the Boeing spacecraft, you’re going to be in the white flight control room while the International Space Station team is over in flight control room one where they are 24/7, 365. So where, how does this differ from your normal role? How does it work to be a flight director for Starliner specifically?

Mike Lammers: It’s Mike. I’ll start. It’s kind of interesting how it came about. So, there’s two vendors with the Commercial Crew Program, right? There’s SpaceX with Dragon and they fly that with their own control team out of Hawthorne, California. And of course, they have control teams also cause they have a large cargo contract that they’ve had for many years. And the vehicles are actually relatively similar from flying. Because of that structure they have, and some of the other goals that they have corporately, they have an operations team that flies their vehicles out of their own control center. When Boeing was setting up their program, number one, they didn’t have the cargo contract. And Boeing traditionally has been a kind of a production house and not an operations organization, right? They build airplanes, they build spacecraft, they don’t operate them. But part of the contract that NASA gave to each one of these vendors was basically deliver astronauts to the space station. And so Boeing overall is responsible to acquire either their own ops team or find one. And what they did is they approached NASA, and it was kind of an interesting arrangement. It’s called a Reimbursable Space Act Agreement. That’s the legal terms, I guess. But essentially what happens is that a NASA gets some contractual considerations. And I’m not one of the contracts people or the lawyers to tell them, but essentially, we act almost as a subcontractor, I hesitate to say that word cause it’s really a partner, but you can think of it in terms of a, of how traditionally subcontractors work and we fly the spacecraft, and Boeing is responsible overall for the mission.

It actually works out pretty well both for Boeing and the government. Boeing is able to tap into, you heard Ed and I talk earlier, we support a lot of programs, right? Operations people are actually kind of expensive. If they only support one program, you always want them doing operations. This program by design was designed to fly once, maybe twice a year at most. And you have to have your people doing other things during that time. And what we do is we fly other spaceships, right? We do a lot of space station work and all these other vehicles that I talked about. So that’s one advantage that it’s just a lower cost to do that sort of thing cause you don’t have to have a, you know, from a budgetary term, a maintenance budget, keeping people around that that do the sorts of things that we do.

On July 29, 2021, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket begins rollout from the Vertical Integration Facility to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41.
On July 29, 2021, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket begins rollout from the Vertical Integration Facility to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Also, it was very helpful in that the alternative would be to develop a control center, which as it turns out, and Ed can tell me this, control centers are very expensive things. People don’t really realize that. But in fact, I think in our organization where we work, the control center is the most expensive budget line item because you need, you know, it’s not just a building, but it’s got a lot of computers. We have diesel generators. We have redundant power. We have redundant chilling. We have all these connections to the outside world and all these people to maintain them. And at the time this contract began, you know, we’re a retiring shuttle. There’s what they called a big legacy cost because the space shuttle program paid for a lot of it, excuse me. And we’re able to essentially share this facility with Boeing and the space station, and it saves the government money because, you know, ultimately the government funds all of this, right? On a contract. And we’re able to save the government’s money by using facilities they already had, we’re able to help Boeing by not having them need to develop something in parallel and the development cost. And it just seemed to have worked out, I think pretty well. I mean, we had a lot of experience from space shuttle, Artemis, you know, the early development of Artemis has been around for a while, as well as space station. And when the vehicle even, you know, even very early on with a lot of the development of things like the propulsion system and the flight computers and the rendezvous systems. I mean, we had people that were NASA experts involved as part of what we do, which is kind of one of the charges that NASA overall had, right? We still have is we’re supposed to enable the commercialization of space by bringing all these companies in, which is really one of the big changes over the last, you know, 15 years since the shuttle flew. Where we have got all these vendors now, like SpaceX and Northrop Grumman and Boeing, and we’re able to help in a different way with each one of them. And this is how we did it with Starliner.

Mike Lammers: So with that large lead in, right? What’s different, the governance structure is a little bit different. What we do day-to-day is actually not really a lot different, right? So we’re in a control room. It’s the same structure we’ve used on all of our programs for decades. The flight director runs the ops team and the ops team, you know, understands the vehicle really well, builds the procedures, builds the timeline, you know, this vehicle, the crew’s flying the vehicle, which is a little bit different than space station. And even Artemis was, is going to be, there’s a lot of automation there. This vehicle is really kind of interesting in that it’s flown. I mean, it’s got a pretty great automation engine in it, but the crew’s got quite a bit of control over it as well. And so we are there to support the crew, you know, pre-launch through landing. I say pre-launch cause we take control of the spacecraft about four hours before launch. But really, I mean, it’s very much very similar to what we did before. And I guess I’ll pass it on to Ed.

Ed Van Cise: I’ll just add the other aspect is that we do have to get used to a few things that are different. So ISS is the destination for one thing. They’re the destination and they control the airspace around them through a couple of different barriers that people have watched. You know, Dragon’s come up, I’m sure you talk about approach ellipsoids and keep up spheres and all those sorts of things. So we have to manage to those same constraints and boundaries. So the flight director, of course is the highest authority in the control room and the highest authority for that mission. But it’s also a bit tiered in the pecking order within the International Space Station, the Houston flight director is the highest authority compared to the other control centers that support ISS. But then ISS is the authority. So that means the space station flight director is the authority once any visiting vehicle is trying to get inside of ISS airspace. So when you have NASA flight directors that are all doors down from each other and are used to being the highest authority in all times in all places, now being in a setting where we have to ask permission from the guy that’s three doors down the hall, can I please come into your airspace? And now I have to answer your questions to prove to you that I have the safe capability. Whereas before, you know, you would just take my word for it because I said so. So I kind of make it a little bit funny. But we had to set up the rules on how to do that and adapt on how to do that, and how do we manage our flight control teams a little bit differently to pre-guess or pre-know what the space station team needs to know from us so that we can answer the questions before they’re asked and be ready to pass through all those invisible boundaries and not get told no go home.

Another aspect is that Mike mentioned that got started around the time the shuttle stopped flying. And as a flight control team, that’s pretty much when we stopped doing dynamic powered flight in the atmosphere. So going up or coming down and really any nimble free flight in orbit operations. Space station’ great. I love it. I call it my baby, but it’s still a million-pound spacecraft in low Earth orbit that you have to fire thrusters for 20 minutes if you want to change its velocity by one meter per second. So it doesn’t move on a dime or a quarter or, you know, insert larger money, it’s a very stable platform and you get used to controlling that now for what? You know, 25, what, 30 years now?

Ed Van Cise: Without having space shuttle, and Orion was still being on the horizon, there’s a big concern of atrophy of our skills to be able to work fast enough to handle the dynamics of power flight and a little sports car, and crew Dragon came along and started flying before Starliner, but still, it’s an oversight capacity versus being, actually, we’re not in Hawthorne flying Dragon, like the SpaceX team is. So with us being able to do Starliner, we get to rebuild and retain those skills. And we’ve seen that when—so Mike and I have been Starliner for a long time now. And we’re kind of used to that speed and that pace. But we bring in new flight controllers from the space station. They have space station experience. Mike’s doing ascent entry. So like the most all you talk about split second decisions. He manages that and he’s got to teach and mentor and I say punish, but discipline or reprimand ISS probably the word practice. I don’t know, I’ve seen you in practice mode and it’s can get kind of angry. But it’s the lives of the crew are immediately on the line in that phase of flight. And it’s just not something we’re accustomed to. I’m not belittling ISS. It’s always dangerous, space wants to kill you. But rebuilding and honing those skills is such a benefit for our ops organization because we are not only doing Starliner, but we’ll be flying Gateway, Orion, lunar surface and, you know, low Earth orbit wants to kill you, but deep space wants to do it even more so. And so we need to make sure we have the skills to keep those people safe, bring them home safely, and get those missions done. So it’s been a great ability for us to retain those skills.

Host: Yeah, that’s a great clarification to talk about those real-time decision-making moments during something like ascent or entry versus obviously, we’re space pros, you know, we’ve been flying the space station for over 25 years now, essentially. But you’re very right. You know, those are two different types of risk and two different types of, I guess like you said, real-time decision making, just those pinpoint moments where you have to be quick on your feet and you don’t get as much time to consult with your team members. So, just talking more about flight director roles. So Mike, you are the ascent and entry flight director. Ed you are the docking flight director. And we’ve flown Starliner a couple of times. We had the Orbital Flight Test and then a second Orbital Flight Test. And from an outsider perspective, you know, I think a lot of people might not know all of the work that goes into preparing for a mission when it’s not flying. So I want to know a little bit more about sims and how you practice between the control rooms, how you practice with your team members on console. How have sims taken place for you over the last few years and what are some of the things you work through in that?

A birdseye view of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft at the launch pad in Florida.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft onboard is seen as it is rollout out of the Vertical Integration Facility to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 ahead of the Orbital Flight Test mission, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The uncrewed Orbital Flight Test was Starliner’s maiden mission to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.  Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Mike Lammers: Well it’s Mike, I’ll start. The sims that I do and the sims that Ed does probably differ quite a bit. So I’ll start with the ones that I do, and I’ll talk in terms of ascent and entry, and then I’ll let Ed go into rendezvous and docking. So, the biggest difference is the ascent and entry sims just tend to be very fast. You have a very specific set of things that happen at very specific times. And, you know, the whole thing from launch to you’re off the spacecraft is about 15 minutes, right? So from zero to the spacecraft separates from the centaur. The second stage of the Atlas V is 15 minutes. And then 31 minutes after you launch, you do the last burning. You go into orbit. It’s very quick. And also, the things that happened during that time are very fast, right? I mean, you go from liftoff to first stage in four and a half minutes, and the team gets to the point where the rhythm and the kind of the pacing of how all of that goes is the same every single time. And then when something doesn’t necessarily work right, there’s sort of an almost built in understanding of what all the rest of the team is doing and the crew is doing the ascent. So you can sort of fit in your piece.

So how does sims work? Right? So we have a simulator that was built by Boeing and it runs the flight software that the spacecraft has, and it’s got a cockpit that the crew sits in when we have it. And they can do some training and my team can run that kind of in an offline mode. And they do a lot of that to verify procedures and just how to fly things. I mean, when we started off, we really didn’t even know how to do a lot of stuff, right? I mean, all of this work involves someone sitting down and working it out in a simulator. It’s just like flying an airplane. How do we get off the launch vehicle if failure X and Y happens? And you do that in these simulators, then when procedures start to mature, we put a crew in that cockpit, we hook it up the mission control, and then we have a wider team of my folks, about a dozen people in mission control. Then we see how it all works.  And usually, it doesn’t work all that well when we start, right? I mean, we had a lot of crashes like both of simulator and literal crashes and just kind of working things out because it’s one thing to sit around in an office and do things, and then it’s quite another to actually have a lot of people watching and to see how it goes in a simulation where if you make a wrong decision, you break something. So that’s what we did, you know, a few years ago. And now, as people get really good, then you start looking at it, you get everything developed, you start getting into the training, right? All the procedures are there, all the flight rules are built. Us and the crew, we kind of talk the same language.

Mike Lammers: Now we start doing, okay, we have a team of instructors that sits over in that simulator and they start breaking things. Usually they find the thing that is the worst possible thing to break. And they break that one and you develop not necessarily a response to every possible thing that could go wrong, but the team sort of figures out the process of identifying a problem and working around it very quickly. And I should add, you know, I’ve got my team in Houston, but the rocket is developed by United Launch Alliance, right at the Atlas V. It’s used on lots of governmental missions, lots of NASA missions, but it hasn’t carried people ever. We have a special group of people that monitor the rocket that actually are in Denver. They tell me what’s going on with the rocket cause the way the architecture works, we don’t have a lot of data on the rocket itself, so that’s fine. The folks in Denver tell me that. And they tell me, it’s funny cause the Atlas V is like the most, I mean, it’s the most reliable rocket ever built. I think it’s been flying since the early nineties. And they’ve never had a mission failure. And they’re pushing 200 launches. But again, we bring them in, and we work through this and we practice, practice, practice. I’ll do a sim day and we do on this launch campaign, starting from about January until our launch date in April right now, we do five days, separate days, of these asset sims. And we’ll usually do four or five runs a day. And you go from basically 15 minutes, 15 or 30 minutes before liftoff to orbit insertion, which is 31 minutes. And then they’ll throw the kitchen sink at us. Sometimes we make orbit, usually they throw a few curve balls in there once in a while because we’ve got to practice things like a launch abort. They’ll have that in there and we’ll do it, we’ll do it three or four times, debrief after each one, and then pick ourselves up and go back and try it again. But by doing this, you know, both us and the crew get a lot of experience working with each other. And it’s not like there’s any good or bad, but it’s just like two different people working together. And each crew has got kind of their own characteristics. And these last sets of sims allow us to figure those out. I mean, just a typical thing that we talked with like Butch, we have some switch throws in the cockpit. There are not a lot of them, but it turns out we can’t see those on the ground. So one of the things that we worked out to make sure, you know, part of the reason we’re there is to make sure that the crew who’s very good and very accurate, but if they miss something, we’re there to back them up and make sure that they don’t miss anything. So one of the things we worked out in these sims was, I think Butch actually suggested it. “Hey, every time I throw a switch, I’m going to tell you.” Right? And that way on the ground, we keep track and the procedures. And if we don’t hear him say that likely he just didn’t tell us cause he was busy. We call up, “Did you throw, did you take backup control to sim, Butch?” You know, and, and he goes, “Oh, yep, I did.” Or took care of it now. And these are the sorts of things that we’re working out in the sim. So very small precise things on the ascent side with really quick time to affect. I mean, 30 seconds is a long time in in ascent. And, I mean 30 seconds, that’s, you know, on a 15-minute ascent. That’s a big chunk of time, but once you practice it enough, it’s kind of interesting. Time sort of slows down. And then you realize, “Oh, that’s actually quite a bit of time.”

Ed Van Cise: In 30 seconds you may have changed regions.

Mike Lammers: Yes. That’s exactly right. So anyways, that’s that kind of the ascent side. And then we’ll get into orbit. We do one more burn called NC, which we get on the phasing orbit that’s taking us to space station. And then I hand over to Ed, he’s got the more science-y part I think with the rendezvous, there’s just a lot of math, right? We do fire and stuff. And then Ed gets to do math and cool things like ranging and all sorts of things. So go ahead.

Ed Van Cise: Yeah. But let’s not discount the math that ULA does. And I mean, when they insert us into orbit, I mean, they put us on a dime.

Mike Lammers: The Atlas V is a very accurate launch vehicle. That’s why they like to use it for interplanetary missions. But yes, I make life easy for you.

Ed Van Cise: Yeah. Right. But when we started this piece of the conversation, you talked about the different phases. It’s probably worth mentioning. So for the CFT mission, and actually OFT-2 as well, Mike’s doing the ascent and he’s got another flight director next to him that helps with the weather. So weather flight director, I’m the, call it the lead orbit flight director or rendezvous, whatever you want to call it. But for both of those flights, I take the shift after Mike. For CFT, we have a crew this time, so I’ll work through the end of the crew day. And then we hand over to another flight director, Chloe Mehring, she does the crew sleep period, but she’s also the lead for the undocking. And then Rick Henfling, who’s the weather flight director. He’ll be the entry flight director. So we actually have four primary flight directors for the mission that are work in those non-dock shifts. But we have a couple other Boeing mission operations flight directors that you’ll see during the docking mission, because I know everybody that’s listening to this is going to tune into NASA TV just to it for the whole mission. Once we get into orbit, do the co-elliptic burn, I don’t know if you want to talk CFT-specific and just what that’s going to be about, we can do that.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner crew ship approaches the International Space Station on the company's Orbital Flight Test-2 mission before automatically docking to the Harmony module's forward port.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew ship approaches the International Space Station on the company’s Orbital Flight Test-2 mission before automatically docking to the Harmony module’s forward port. Credit: NASA

Host: For docking?

Ed Van Cise: For just like—so we’re in space.

Mike Lammers: We do a lot. I think it’d be interesting, but there’s a lot of tests specific to CFT cause it’s a test flight.

Ed Van Cise: Oh, yeah.

Host: Sure, sure. Manual piloting, demo…

Mike Lammers: Manual piloting, all that. All that good stuff.

Host: Yeah. Let’s definitely. I want to do an overview right after this.

Mike Lammers: Alright. We’ll just talk high level.

Ed Van Cise: Okay. Well then let me kind of go back in time a little bit. So 2016, just to kind of set the stage for, and Mike talked about how we do things now, but I think it’s important for people to maybe wonder like, “Well, how did you get there from a developmental program?” I remember going to the very, very first… today, we’d laugh, it does a tabletop, we called it a sim back then. But this thing started kind of the way you might assume is that like, okay, we are in space and we want to dock, so let’s draw some blocks and make a generic flow chart and we’ll just get everybody involved in this together. And we’ll just start talking through it. And that’s the first thing. I mean, our first “sim” was just, let’s talk through these major things.

Then every time we talk about training, we play the “how would you’s” or the “what ifs” or “what abouts.” I mean, that’s constantly what we’re doing. So we have these, I don’t know, first day we might have had six blocks and we’re just going to generically talk about what each block might contain. And then what about this, what about this? You have to do this. How would you do this? How would you do that? And so we just basically just wrote down questions. And then we’d go off, we did homework, try to answer those questions, not in detail, and then we come back, we had more blocks, they’re a little bit smaller. And then we’d say, “Well,” and then at some point you start having, “Okay, well what if this thing breaks during this box? Then what?” And that’s where we thrive, if something broke, then what category?

And we actually love to live in the, if something’s already broke, what happens when the next thing breaks. And that’s where we invest a lot of our time and resources. But that 2016-2017 timeframe was pretty much all paper sims. And we didn’t really have a simulator yet. The software, spacecraft software, was still being developed. They didn’t have a simulator for us for a long time. So it was just getting our ISS friends and our Boeing mission operations friends. It was like Mike and my team, Dr. Bob and Richard’s team back in those days, together in a room and just talked through everything. And so then we started, we got the simulator and we weren’t ready to call them sims yet. So we made up an acronym, MOST, Mission Operation Sequence Test, because we were afraid to call them sims cause that implied you had some sort of knowledge to fix things. But we just played with the simulator, what can you break? And I think the initial simulator had like three things you could break and that was it. And you just hoped the thing would run.

So it’s this evolutionary thing, and like Mike said, Boeing provides a simulator. So we have this really great relationship with that Boeing team. We provide them feedback and what works, what doesn’t, what we’d like. And there’s big iterative process. And I know for both of us, we’ve talked in the office to look at where we are now and the things we worry about. And like some of them are four or five very complex failures deep, and you’re in a corner case that if you probably will never get there. But if you do get there, you could lose the crew. But being in that, even having that conversation now compared to where we were five years ago or whatever, is just amazing. And that’s a big thing with the developmental program to get to walk those steps versus, you know, coming into ISS, I guess we’ve both been here since first element, before first element launch, so we’ve got to watch that a bit for ISS too. But at least when I started, there already was a space station training simulator, and of course space shuttle was in its prime.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner crew ship is pictured docked to the Harmony module's forward port on the International Space Station as the orbitng complex flew 261 miles above the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexican state of Nayarit.
Boeing’s Starliner crew ship is pictured docked to the Harmony module’s forward port on the International Space Station as the orbiting complex flew 261 miles above the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexican state of Nayarit. Credit: NASA

Ed Van Cise: So that’s kind of just some more background on the sim development piece. We talked how everything with smoke and fire and plasma is the riskiest piece. So going up and coming down. But the next riskiest piece is on flight day two. So the day after launch, when we actually need to come in and very gently collide with the space station, and exactly the right place in space at exactly the right speeds, pointed in the right direction and all that sort of stuff. And watch out. The space station has these massive solar arrays, you know, big arms, if extending out into your path if you don’t do it right. So we have to be really thorough and careful with that. But you’re on a really high-speed interstate, with your very nimble small little sports car spacecraft, and you have to get all the navigation correct and take your exits exactly on time and exactly the right speed if you’re going to make that low Earth orbit rendezvous, and if you miss it, either by speed or by time, you end up in the wrong orbit. You might have to do what we call a parking orbit or go out and loiter in front of the space station, kind of regroup and then come back.

OFT is a good example. The first Orbital Flight Test mission. Just getting the spacecraft into orbit took more propulsion consumables, more propellant than we had available to both get into orbit and then get up to the space station. So we were not able to get enough velocity, change in velocity Delta V, to make our rendezvous. So we ended up coming home after just a couple of days, doing the most test objectives that we could. But since we couldn’t get up to the space station, we came home. And so we have to manage all of those things pretty carefully to then do this gentle space station collision.

So simulations then. So knowing all those sensitivities, our simulations, they grind on these rendezvous sims on all of those sensitive points. We have two points in the rendezvous. When everybody watches, you’ll hear us talk to the crew about ATPs. They’re Authority to Proceed. And the crew will command those ATPs when we tell them that Vincent LaCourt—he’s the space station flight director—he gives me a go, my team is ready, we’ll give Butch the go. They’ll execute the command. But if the command is not up there, when the vehicle goes and looks for it once. And if it doesn’t see it at that time, it assumes that we’re not ready to proceed and it’ll go off to the parking orbit and we’ll lose the trajectory for that day. So the training team, of course, will put failures in to distract us. They’ll take away some of the capability that our flight rules say we have to have in order to proceed past that milestone. And that’ll really stress the flight rules case and like, do you really, really need it or do you just say you need it because it was easy to say you needed it? And so we’ll have those conversations and oftentimes, especially in the developmental days, it’ll drive us back to do a lot of homework. We don’t really do a lot of homework anymore because we’re in our final pre-flight campaign. But that’s generally how the training goes.

But now that we’re in this final, since January, we’re going to go fly the whole mission, we’re spending more time talking about the days we don’t simulate very often. So after we get off the launch vehicle, a crew’s doing a whole lot of activities that we don’t simulate all that much. So we invest time there. We actually don’t simulate much of the docking mission with ISS. So we’ve been spending more time talking about that now as well, just to kind of be able to put the whole mission together.

Host: So we’ve talked about both of you, your path to NASA. We’ve talked about sims and the preparation to get to this point. Can you give me a high-level overview of the Crew Flight Test, of the mission from the moment we launch to the moment we land on land, under chutes, and bring the crew home?

NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT) astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams during T-38 pre-flight activities at Ellington Field Credits NASA/Robert Markowitz.

Mike Lammers: Okay, it’s Mike, I’ll start. Maybe I’ll go through my part and then hand it off to you, Ed, and go through the dock mission I’ll do undock and landing. So, it really starts about a day before launch. The spacecraft is made into the Atlas V. There’s a, you know, ULA facilities of Pad 41, and it rolls out of a building called the VIFF on the mobile launch platform out to the launchpad. Once they get hard down on the pad, there’s a team of Boeing engineers who work really closely with the Boeing team. They’re in what’s called the BMCC, the Boeing Mission Control Center, in Florida, you know, the spacecraft is built in the old shuttle C3PF, which was converted to support this program, right? They have the factory on the first floor and the offices on the second, and then there’s a building nearby that has the BMCC.

So these are all the people that build the spacecraft. They power it up and down to test it. They do this all the time. So once we get hard down at the pad, those folks will power up the spacecraft. They run a bunch of tests to make sure the spacecraft is doing what they expected it to do. On launch day, we’ll come in and that day before we’ve got some planning to do. We kind of an L-one day pre-brief with the crew. We do some com checks with Houston, the comm checks or basically making sure that when our Capcom, the person that sits next to me, that talks to the crew, he talks, it actually goes through the audio system into the vehicle. But that’s what we do the day before. Then everyone hopefully goes home, gets some rest, will come in the next day. Really, we have a few meetings to review the weather. But they start doing what’s called cryogenic tanking of the Atlas V six hours before launch. They do a pad clear, and they put the fuel and the cryogenic fuel and the oxidizer into the rocket, and then they’ll do the last activation of the spacecraft. The Boeing team in Florida will bring the spacecraft propulsion systems up to pressure and my team gets on console at six hours before launch. They come in at six hours before launch, and then we will go ahead and get ready. And at four hours before launch, the team in Florida hands it over to my team, the spacecraft, the rockets managed by the ULA team in Florida, and the launch conductor. And that’s the person I talked to.

It’s really kind of interesting. The way Boeing architected this. It was sort of contracted as a commercial mission. So they bought the launch from United Launch Alliance, just like the government buys launches. So we control the spacecraft, the launch conductor, and the ULA team controls the rocket, but I work with them. And then we’ve got some other engineers that are watching the rocket during ascent in Denver. But we’ll do that. The crew will come out to the pad. We’ll send a pad team out during this time and they’ll configure the white room, get everything ready for the crew. We’ll come out about two and a half hours and doing this from memory to go up the tower and get loaded into the spacecraft, the pad team, the Boeing pad team. We’ll load them into the spacecraft. We will go ahead and do some, you know, communications checks with the crew, make sure they’re situated. And then go ahead and close the hatch. We start doing that about an hour and 20 minutes before launch. We’ll close the hatch, we’ll pressurize the spacecraft, make sure it’s holding pressure, and then the pad team will start to go about an hour before launch. And then that last hour, the crew makes sure that we don’t have any leaks in the hatch. They’ll go ahead and equalize the pressure at the outside. We’ll go through the countdown. Things really start to get going about 20 minutes before launch. We’ll do a bunch of polls, 18 minutes before launch. We’ll switch the power over to the batteries and Starliner. We’ll do some last configurations. We’ll take the software to ascent mode. The crew will arm the ordinance. They’ll retract the crew access arm. We’ll do one final go for launch. That’s done at seven minutes. And then the crew will be told to arm their abort system, which is done at 75 seconds before launch. And then we’ll lift off.

Mike Lammers: Once we lift off, we’re in powered flight. That’s when my job starts, even though it’s been a long day to that point. But we’ll go ahead and as I mentioned before, the first four and a half minutes is on the first stage. And then, during that time, we climb out from Florida, the solid rocket boosters burn out and drop. We have two of those. And then a bunch of events happened at staging. We will ignite the centaur. It’s a dual engine centaur. It’s kind of a pretty cool little stage, but that’ll take the next about 10 minutes. To orbit, we’ll shed an ascent cover that covers our docking system. During that time, we’ll drop an arrow skirt, that’s the little round thing about the base of the spacecraft. And then we’ll get up to MECO, which is about 12 minutes after we lift off. We sit there for three minutes on the centaur coasting, and then we’ll do what’s called launch vehicle sep. That’s when the Atlas is separated from the spacecraft and it will be flying free. The crew will be able to go until, during this point of time, the crew actually uses a paper book for procedures if folks are wondering about that. But they go to tablets on this program. They pull tablets out right after that. Then we’ll go ahead, and the crew does a few checks of systems. But 31 minutes into the flight, they do what’s called the orbit insertion burn. You know, we’re what’s called suborbital during this period of time, which is a little different than some of the other spacecraft that come to ISS. The big rocket makes them orbital. But we’ve got to do another burn to get there. And the crews, normally, this is all automated, the spacecraft, it’s really pretty interesting. It can get all the way to space station with just those two commands that Ed talked about earlier, the authorities to proceed. But the crew’s got all, you know, we work all sorts of contingencies so the crew can manually burn into orbit if they need to. Hopefully they won’t need to do that.

We’ll do that burn at 31 minutes and then the crew will start getting over to cooling on the radiators that we got in the spacecraft, we use a thing called a sublimate during ascent that just, basically, you put water and freeze it, and as it sublimates away, it carries away heat. But they’ll get the radiators going, they’ll configure the cabin, they’ve got to do some life support stuff like manage the desiccant and the LiOH that removes the CO2 from the cabin, those sorts of things. We’ll do another burn in an hour and 15 minutes. It gets what’s called our phasing orbit, depending on what day we launch, we have to get different altitudes. And it’s all based on how far we’ve got to go to catch up with space station, where it was when we launched. But then my team hands over to Ed and he gets into the rest of flight day on .

Ed Van Cise: And flight day one. So the crew’s been up for quite a while. So it’s probably middle of the day or later for the crew. So we’ll have them for maybe another four or so hours before we put them to bed for the night. And really, the focus of flight day one, there’s a couple, if you remember OFT-2 for everybody who followed that, there are a lot of tests that we did right after getting off the launch vehicle on that mission to make sure that the automated vehicle could safely get away from space station if it had to. That was really the main objectives. And then we’re doing the same sort of thing for CFT, this flight, except there’s only one thing that we have to do from that perspective is to make sure that the crew can manually control it to be able to fly away from space station if we had to. But the day is going to be full of different checkouts that we’re doing to Mike talked about the different contingencies that we always prepare for. So we want to make sure the spacecraft can really do the procedures that we’ve come up with. So for everybody that’s going to be watching, you all get to hear us talk about things like being lost in space and recovery of communication and trying to find a way to charge our batteries. And that’s because the objective is to put the spacecraft, to almost trick it into thinking that we’re in a bad situation. So then the crew can take over and correct it manually using our procedures. So we’re going to manipulate the guidance and control system to simulate it’s not knowing where it is in space by telling it to ignore some of the other components, the systems that it has. And then the crew should be able to find where they are using the star trackers and all their capabilities. But, you know, in these circumstances, if it doesn’t work out the way we think it will, then they can just turn the automated system back on and we’re fine. So it’s just a preemptive, when you hear loss in space, everything’s still just fine. Then we’ll get that done. We’ll put the crew to bed. They’ll get about nine hours of time to time to sleep. I don’t know if I’d be able to sleep. But they’ll get the time to do whatever they want to do. They should be sleeping, but then we wake up for rendezvous day, flight day two.

We will, if all goes to plan, the crew will be really bored, looking out the windows, sitting on their thumbs, all their training has been what switches to throw, what hand control emotions to make to take over.  And so now they’ve got to sit on their hands, don’t touch anything. The spacecraft’s going to fly itself up. They’ll get to interact a couple times to push that authority to proceed. And other than that, they can just watch and make sure the spacecraft’s doing what it’s supposed to. We’ve got a great rendezvous navigation system, VESTA, you heard us talk about it a lot during OFT-2, really proved itself then. It’s made even more robust and reliable from the lessons learned from the last flight. So we fully expect VESTA is going to take the crew in, get us there safely, we’ll dock. And then it’s going to be the first time ever that Starliner hatch is going to get opened from the inside with the crew. And then we’re really off to the races for an eight-docked day mission.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner crew ship approaches the International Space Station on the company's Orbital Flight Test-2 mission before automatically docking to the Harmony module's forward port. The orbiting lab was flying 271 miles above the south Pacific off the coast of New Zealand at the time of this photograph.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew ship approaches the International Space Station on the company’s Orbital Flight Test-2 mission before automatically docking to the Harmony module’s forward port. The orbiting lab was flying 271 miles above the south Pacific off the coast of New Zealand at the time of this photograph. Credit: NASA

Just really focused on every possible thing you can check out inside our spacecraft. And then also just what it’s going to be like to have it at space station for the next mission, which is going to be a full six-month mission. So we’re cramming six months’ worth of activities into an eight day dock mission. So we’re in there, powering it up, powering it down, moving hardware here, move it there. Can four people sleep in Starliner? Cause that’s what we’ll have to do on that next long duration mission. Going up and back from the space station. So kind of cramming all of that in very busy dock mission. Get to the back end of it. We will shut the hatches. And then you’d think we would just go the way we came, but of course it’s never that easy.

Ed Van Cise: So we’ll undock, Chloe will lead the way for the undocking using that same VESTA system. Keep us in tight alignment with ISS. And then we’ll do a same profile we did for OFT-2. We’ll go up and over and behind the space station, get on that same type of co-elliptic that Mike was talking about. But this time, we’re trying to get out in front of ISS still again, we’ll be down below. And then Rick will lead the team to do in the big deal orbit burn. You know the rest better than I do.

Mike Lammers: Yeah. So, you know, from really undocking to landing is about six and a half hours. One thing Ed mentioned that, you know, we’re probably looking at there’s a minimum eight-docked day mission. We actually, it could be a little bit longer than that, so we’ll figure out. Cause the day that we land, you know, Starliner lands on land, which is kind of interesting, right? It lands at White Sands Space Harbor, or White Sands Missile Ranges are two spots that are within the White Sands Missile Ranges that are about, I think, 50 miles apart. Or we can land at Wilcox Playa, which is east of Tucson in Arizona. We’re a dugway proving ground in Utah, west of Salt Lake City. But all of these places, you know, we land on airbags.

We’ve got to have good weather to do this, right? So, you know, you don’t want to fly through a thunderstorm when you’re in parachutes. Also, you want relatively light wind. So, the one kind of unknown variable that you have and all these things is what’s the weather going to be like? So, we’ll watch the weather and then it’ll kind of guide us on when we undock. So could be eight days, could be a little bit longer than that. But again, the day that we do decide to undock, the crew undocks and they back out and then they do what we call a quarter lap. And then we do a little bit of a burn to get us away from space station. We go down three kilometers below and we’ll dwell there for a couple of orbits. We’ve got some further tests to do. there’s a backup system in the spacecraft. It’s really kind of nifty. The crew can fly the spacecraft without any computers. We call it stick and rudder flying, right? It’s just they can command the devices that basically fire the jets, which is a different kind of flying, but they can do it. And a lot of our development has been getting them to the point that, that if they had to, they could fly without computers. Which is kind of cool. But we’ll go ahead and test that system for the first time after we undock. So the crew will basically do some rotations. They’ll roll, and then we’ll do a couple of very short translational burns just to verify everything works.

Ed Van Cise: To be clear, it’s the first time we’ll test it in space. We’ve been testing the rear end out of it on Earth.

Mike Lammers: There’s a lot of test rig, that’s true. But we’ll go ahead and do that. And then, you know, we’ll turn the automation back on. Starliner is pretty nifty cause all the crew really needs to do is tell the spacecraft when they want to land, and it will figure everything out and put them down there. They’ve just got to get their spacesuits on, which is kind of neat. Now, of course, they could actually do all of that manually if they had to. But the spacecraft will do it for them. We’ll go ahead and do a deorbit burn with our big service module, you know, that we didn’t talk about the spacecraft, but there’s a crew module and a service module. The service module’s got most of the propulsion system on it. There’s a small one in the crew module. We’ll go ahead and do that burn. The crew module and the service module will separate.

Once you’ve done the burn, the service module burns up in the Pacific. The crew module will activate its little propulsion system. You know, it’s just like any other capsule. It controls lift. And that’s how its guidance works. To get it to the landing site, it’s got to land in a four-kilometer circle. It actually does this pretty well. It did it to what White Sands twice already. And it’s about 45 minutes. And at 30,000 feet, it’s very quick at the end, at 30,000 feet. And hopefully we’ll have video of this. It jettisons the forward heat shield and it starts putting out drug parachutes then the main shoots. And then as it passes into lower altitudes, I think it’s the main’s deployed 8,000 feet, the three mains. Then something cool happens. The heat shield drops and airbags deploy and thing called a bucket handle releases and gets the angle right for the landing. And then the thing hits the ground with airbags, providing your landing attenuation. And the crew will jettison the parachute and then the vehicle starts powering itself down all by itself. And the landing team is a Boeing landing team. They’re out there waiting for the crew, there’s some communications equipment out there. Plus, they’ll have a NASA team out there, like the flight surgeons. Once the vehicle is down and all the stuff that we jettison coming down falls to the ground, they’ll go out there. They’ll have a standoff from the spacecraft. They do checks, make sure it’s not leaking fuel and things like that, that’s hazardous. And then, we’ll hand over to them and then they’ll go ahead and open the hatch, get the crew out, do some medical checks in the truck. And then the crew will be helicoptered out to the airfield. And then they come back to Houston.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner lands in the New Mexico desert.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner lands in the New Mexico desert in the company’s Pad Abort Test for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The test, conducted Nov. 4 at the White Sands Missile Range, was designed to verify that each of Starliner’s systems will function not only separately, but in concert, to protect astronauts by carrying them safely away from the launch pad in the unlikely event of an emergency prior to liftoff. Credit: NASA

Ed Van Cise: So one thing to add, so Mike mentioned, hopefully we’ll have video and I know you’re not supposed to read the comments, but I do read the comments and I think it’s important to point out to everybody that listens, cause I know they will make the comments. It’s probably going to be a night landing, and that means the video is not going to be the best. And it’s not because we don’t want there to be great video. So don’t be a hater in the comments that there’s not a great color video. But Mike is to blame for why we need to land at night. And it’s cause we’re landing in the desert.

Mike Lammers: Or orbital mechanics.

Ed Van Cise: The winds are way better in the desert at night.

Mike Lammers: Yeah, the winds. Better at night.

Ed Van Cise: So if you want us to actually land, we probably ought to come home at night. So, sorry.

Mike Lammers: It’s interesting though. It’s one of the practical problems of landing. Landing at night is actually better because the winds are lower. I’s also easier on because we land in the desert, right? The people that are out there working would rather work at night than during the day cause it gets hot in the desert. And if you ever noticed, some of them are in protective gear and it gets way hot in there. So, you know, there’s like a million different details that you need to go through to do some of this stuff. But that was one of the things that we learned doing this before, is that yeah, landing at night’s better. And they got, you know, really, really awesome situational awareness, light towers and things like that. So it’s really not hard for them out there. Where at first, you know, folks were a little bit, when I started working on this years ago, people were maybe a little bit more just thought it’d be more challenging than it ended up being, I think.

Ed Van Cise: So hopefully, we’ll get some good IR camera video. So blame Mike if you’re upset that you don’t have color video of entry.

Host: I’m excited. I had the opportunity to go out to the last mission dress rehearsal for landing and hopefully I’ll be there on landing day. But yeah, it’s a great setup. And like you mentioned, a lot of the teams are suited up. You’ve got the teams doing those hyper-go checks. You’ve got medical response teams on hand firefighters, so it really takes a village to make it happen.

Mike Lammers: What landing site were you at?

Host: I was at Range Road 26.

Mike Lammers: Range Road 26. Okay.

Host: Way up there.

Mike Lammers: Way up there. Yeah. We went there a month ago. Did you get to the Trinity site?

Host: I didn’t, but I really, really want to go.

Mike Lammers: We got to go up there. We went up there with the CFT crews. We had to wait two hours for a test stand, but we got there.

Ed Van Cise: When you’re the ascent entry guy, you get to travel, like all my stuff’s in space and they don’t let me go.

Host: You can’t go to space.

Mike Lammers: You got to go to the Venus Lab, right?

Ed Van Cise: Oh yeah. Back in 2017.

Host: So to wrap us all up, we’ve gotten a big picture look at the mission, and we’ve been preparing for this for a while. I know everybody’s really excited to have another spacecraft capable of delivering crew to the International Space Station, launching from U.S. soil. The Commercial Crew Program has really stressed the importance of having multiple transportation providers. Why do you think this is so important for NASA?

Mike Lammers: You know, there’s been a lot of cases in the past where having multiple ways to get through the space station has really helped us out a great deal. Obviously, when the shuttle had its stand down after the Columbia, we’re reliant on Russian partners to deliver crew and cargo to the space station. You know, moving on a little bit farther, we had some cargo vehicles. We had a string. It’s actually when Butch was in space last. We had a string of cargo missions, both Russian and U.S., that didn’t make it. And we used, it’s really cool. NASA’s kind of created this ecosystem of lots of cargo vehicles. And that was by design, right? To kind of encourage this ecosystem of launch vehicles and cargo vehicles that have access to low Earth orbit by funding multiple vendors to do this.

You have what’s called, you know, assured access so that there’s a problem with one. The other one can pick up the slack if necessary. Also, you know from the government, just being and I’ll sound like a policy person here, but from the government, being a customer, you don’t ever want to have all your eggs in one basket. And that’s been true for a long time. I mean, you see on anything that the government does in acquisitions, they typically want a couple of sources. It’s not necessarily all in the interest of just the government obviously, that, you know, you don’t want to become beholden to one supplier. But also, a lot of times suppliers don’t really want that either because they don’t want to be, you know, the government does some, you lose some of your flexibility to grow your business when the government is your only and biggest customer. And so that’s why everyone, both the government and I think the vendors want to have a couple of different people doing things. It’s kind of funny, but as you can see, this ecosystem, I mean, there’s some competition, but in general, it just the way I view it is that they benefit much more than they benefit from the, I hesitate to say word competition, cause we don’t compete these, right? I mean, the award was for the commercial crew was to both SpaceX and Boeing, you know, the competition was years ago. And they both can, all of these companies, learn from each other. They provide employees to each other a workforce as they grow. And some of them have been growing extensively. I remember when, you know, at an eye, when we started 20 years ago, I mean, kind of the only game in town was NASA and its direct contractors.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner crew ship approaches the International Space Station on the company's Orbital Flight Test-2 mission before automatically docking to the Harmony module's forward port.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew ship approaches the International Space Station on the company’s Orbital Flight Test-2 mission before automatically docking to the Harmony module’s forward port. The orbiting lab was flying 268 miles above the south Pacific at the time of this photograph. Credit: NASA

And now, we have just all of these companies in the sky is kind of the limit on what they’re talking about doing. And NASA’s funding some Space Act Agreements with commercial space stations way out in the future that they’re looking at. And, you know, we’ve gotten things like HALO that Ed mentioned before, is really a derivative of some commercial work that have been done a decade ago. And of course, we see all the great things that SpaceX does with their capabilities and it’s really pretty interesting. So that’s all very, I think, important to the government.

Ed Van Cise: Yeah, I’ll just add, kind of pulling on both of those. And again, you know, the social media comments and the danger of reading them, but I think it’s pretty easy to look at the short game and see that, you know, we just launched in Crew-8, so Dragon, crew Dragon, has flown crews to the space station nine times now. And there’s questions in the comments about why is Boeing even bothering? Why is NASA even bothering? You know, is it a folly with having Starliner? And I think Mike’s done a good job of outlining why the answer’s no. Just from the perspective of, you know, you need redundancy and different means to get there. But if you go listen to like Kathy Lueder’s Houston We Have a Podcast episode where she talks about the long game with Artemis and the requirement for the low Earth orbit economy that Mike’s talking about and the commercial destinations that Mike mentioned. If you’re going to have multiple destinations, you have to have multiple ways to get there. And so that has been part of NASA’s long game is to have a low Earth orbit be something that NASA, as a government agency, can get out of the business of kind of doing the development work. And we can shift all that out to cislunar space. And that includes getting people to and from space. And you can’t have all these destinations and only have one taxi. So you need multiple taxis from multiple taxi companies. And so NASA’s continued support of Boeing Starliner program helps encourage that. And from Boeing, you know, being Mike and I have some insight into the inside of Boeing, you know, they want this, they need this to be successful because they also want to continue to grow their business model so they can go to those future destinations. And so it’s not just “let’s prove that we can get crews to and from the space station with Starliner,” but also then learn how to operate Starliner and help its development. So that Boeing and we with them can go to other places with Starliner and make it really a Starliner, right? So that’s one more reason to continue to be excited about this mission. And it’s the first of many.

Mike Lammers: You know, one of the interesting things is by, you know, what does it really mean to develop this stuff? Fundamentally, looking at it from the government, it’s just engineers and people. I mean, that’s what really builds all of this stuff. And by having more and more companies able to do this, you’re really just exposing more people to doing it cause the best teacher is to build stuff. And folks, you know, over the next 20 or 30 years, they shift jobs, they do interesting things. But maybe one of the more interesting things that I saw is, you know, the Intuitive Machines landing a couple of weeks ago, I guess is really quite interesting cause NASA contracted that, right? That was another thing that NASA did. Well, you know, those folks, that money and that to do that contract and those folks that, a lot of them used to be our colleagues at Johnson Space Center. It just didn’t appear. They were just people that had worked on other programs and NASA provided this seed money, and it’s really quite amazing that this group of folks go out and set up this company and they built the A Lander. They’re all just the products of these other programs that have been worked. So I remember talking to one of those guys had worked trying to remember some of the old shuttle missions and some of the payloads that have been on it. And again, they’re just people.

Host: Well, we are really excited and looking forward to Starliner launch and to see Butch and Suni in space, to see Starliner dock to the International Space Station, hatch opening, have them float in and get that regular cadence going of having a second provider traveling to and from the International Space Station with our crew. So, just wanted to thank you both again, Ed and Mike for joining us. We really appreciate it.

Mike Lammers: Thank you.

Ed Van Cise: Thanks. You know, we’re engineers, so I don’t know, we probably don’t want to come across that excited, but we’re very excited, excited. We cannot wait to get Butch and Suni up there and, more importantly, get them home safely. Maybe it’s not our best excited voices, but we are really excited for this flight.

Host: I can tell. Go NASA. Go Boeing. Go Starliner.


Host: Thanks for sticking around. I hope you learned something new today. Check for the latest news and you can find more episodes at You can follow Johnson Space Center on Facebook, X, and Instagram and use #AskNASA on your favorite platform to submit your idea and make sure it’s to mention it’s for Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded March 5, 2024. Thanks to Gary Jordan, Will Flato, Dane Turner, Abby Graf, Jaden Jennings, and Dominique Crespo. And of course, thanks again to Mike and Ed for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of our podcast. We’ll be back next week.

This is an Official NASA Podcast.