Both Boeing and SpaceX plan to send humans to the International Space Station from US soil this year for the first time since 2011. On board those missions will be five astronauts—Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and Nicole Aunapu Mann, Chris Ferguson, and Edward Michael Fincke on Boeing’s Starliner. But that wasn’t always the roster. Fincke found out in January he would be substituting for fellow astronaut Eric Boe on the planned August launch. Boe was pulled from the mission for medical reasons.
While he is new to this mission, Fincke is no stranger to flying. Back in 2011 he broke the record for most time in space by a US astronaut (he has since been passed by Scott Kelly during his year in space and Peggy Whitson), and he has completed nine spacewalks. At MIT’s Apollo 50th anniversary event during MIT Space Week, I pulled him aside to talk about his upcoming mission.
This Q and A first appeared in our space tech newsletter, The Airlock. You can sign up here—it’s free!
You only got assigned to the Boeing mission back in January. What was it like to hear that you were going back to space?
It’s always exciting to get a space mission. You know, this is my fourth space mission. I waited eight and a half years to hear those words. On the other hand, it came at the expense of my very good, dear friend Eric Boe. He and I had been working on this program for four or five years together, and it was his turn. Unfortunately, he couldn’t take his turn. I was happy to step in, but not at Eric’s expense. So it was mixed feelings, but of course the mission must go on.
How does training compare with your last missions on the Soyuz and the shuttle?
Our mission is called the inflight test, so our first and foremost objective is to be the first crew to test out the Boeing CST-100 Starliner so that we can certify it and that future crews can go up and down to the space station on a regular basis. On the other hand, we’re also running out of Soyuzes, so NASA has an option with the Boeing company to extend our mission to six months. So my training is making sure we know what to do on our own spaceship, but then be ready for another six-month space mission. I’ve already done two of those, so that’s the part I bring to the team, whereas my colleagues Nicole Mann and Chris Ferguson from Boeing—they’re focused on the spaceship.
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So where are the preparations at right now?
Right now, the spacecraft itself, the CST-100 Starliner, is going through its testing phase. At the end of each phase we go check it out and spend time with our little baby spaceship. Well, it’s not a little baby. It’s a big baby.
The second thing taking a lot of time for me is to catch up on the space station. The space station, of course, is an international project, so I have to spend five weeks in Russia to see the Russian part. I’ll spend a week in Europe and a week in Japan. So a lot of my schedule is getting back up to speed with the modern-day space station, as well as focusing on our new spacecraft. So it’s very busy.
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Are you communicating back and forth with the upcoming SpaceX crew as well? Since they could likely be going up before you all.
Well, I wouldn’t say “likely” before. Just because they did their first mission doesn’t mean their second is going to happen quickly. But yeah, I still keep in great touch with my colleagues at SpaceX, not to compare and contrast our spacecraft, but to make sure we’re all focused on the right thing for our mission. They have a very similar mission to us. They just won’t have the option to stay for six months [Boeing is the only one with the contract option from NASA to do so], but they’re flight-testing a new spaceship. We haven’t done that since 1981 with the space shuttle.
What are the biggest milestones remaining for you before the launch?
One of the biggest for me personally, and for the program, is our friends from SpaceX just came back from their Demo 1 mission. We are about to launch our orbital flight test (OFT) mission in the next couple of months. And that is going to be a very big deal. Once OFT launches, docks at the space station, and comes back safely, it’ll really help us understand how ready we are for the flight test. So we’re watching the spacecraft performance, seeing how it’s doing, and helping the teams overcome any challenges along the way. That’s going to be exciting, as well as making sure we’re ready for the space station—being trained for space walks and robo-arm operations. That’s a lot of work to accomplish. We’re doing things that most crews have a year or two to do. We are trying to compress it all into six to eight months.
Do you plan to stay on as an astronaut for another launch after this one?
We’ll see. It’s been eight and a half years since my last launch, and I don’t know if I want to wait another eight to 10 years for another one, but you know—it’s been worth every minute of the wait.