Needham astronaut heading back to space on first commercial flights
Sunita Williams, a veteran astronaut with roots in Needham, is going back into space.
Williams is among a group of nine people who will begin riding the first commercial space capsules into orbit next year, bringing astronaut launches back to the United States for the first time since the space shuttle retired in 2011.
SpaceX and Boeing, which are partnering with NASA, will first launch test flights, then regular missions. SpaceX will launch the Crew Dragon, while Boeing will launch its CST-100 Starliner.
After the Starliner goes for its test flight, Williams will be one of two crew members who ride it for its first mission to the International Space Station, according to NASA.
“Rockets are fun. I’ll be ready, I can’t wait,” Williams said in an interview posted Friday on the International Space Station Facebook page. “The nervousness will just melt away when you get into that rocket.”
US astronauts currently ride on Russian capsules to the space station, with NASA paying as much as $82 million a seat.
‘‘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, who introduced the astronauts at Johnson Space Center in Houston on Friday.
The seven men and two women pumped their fists in the air and gave thumbs ups as they strode onto the stage to cheers from the crowd.
Williams, 52, is a 1983 graduate of Needham High School who went on to the US Naval Academy and served in the Navy, where she was a test pilot before retiring as a captain and joining NASA in 1998.
Williams has already taken two trips to the space station, commanded it, and racked up 322 days in space, second on the all-time list for female astronauts. She’s also spent 50 hours and 40 minutes on spacewalks, an accomplishment that is second on the list for female astronauts, according to her NASA biography.
She was the first person to run a marathon in space, cranking out the miles on a treadmill in the space station while the Boston Marathon was being run on Earth in April 2007.
Williams said in Friday’s interview that the new mission was “a test pilot’s dream.”
“I’m pretty excited to be on the Starliner. It’s modern compared to the other two” ships she’s flown, she said. “This will be a nice, slick new spacecraft with fewer buttons.”
“Once you get into the spacecraft, you’re on your way, you’ve got a mission, you’re focused, and it’s really exciting,” she said.
NASA has been paying billions of dollars to SpaceX and Boeing to develop the crew capsules to pick up where the space shuttles left off in 2011, while also paying billions for cargo deliveries to the space station by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. The cargo missions started in 2012.
The crew missions have been delayed repeatedly because of the technical challenges and difficulties of making spacecraft safe for humans. A recent abort test by Boeing resulted in leaking engine fuel.
Astronaut Doug Hurley, who will be on the Space X test flight, hinted at the delays when he noted at Friday’s Johnson Space Center announcement: ‘‘The first flight is something you dream about as a test pilot, and you don’t think it’s ever going to happen to you. But looks like it might.’’
‘‘Oh, it better,’’ Bridenstine chimed in.