The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will have a presence in space again in 2021, with NASA astronaut and alumnus Barry “Butch” Wilmore on the flight crew for the CST Starliner’s inaugural launch. Wilmore earned his master’s degree in aviation systems from UT through the UT Space Institute in 1994.
The Boeing Starliner is NASA’s latest crewed vehicle, a capsule that can be fitted to one of four different types of rockets. Its look is reminiscent of NASA’s Apollo era, although slightly larger—it can hold up to seven astronauts as opposed to Apollo’s three—and it’s designed to be reused on up to 10 missions.
Wilmore had been serving as backup for the flight since training began in 2018 but was moved to the prime crew after fellow astronaut Chris Ferguson bowed out of the mission.
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“I’m grateful to Chris for his exceptional leadership and insight into this very complex and most capable vehicle,” Wilmore said in a NASA release. “Having had the chance to train alongside and view this outstanding crew as backup has been instrumental in my preparation to assume this position. Stepping down was a difficult decision for Chris, but with his leadership and assistance to this point, this crew is positioned for success. We will move forward in the same professional and dedicated manner that Chris has forged.”
Wilmore joins Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke on the flight, which will test the Starliner’s capabilities during a flight to the International Space Station sometime next year.
Wilmore’s previous missions include a 2009 flight with fellow UT alumnus Randy Bresnik and a 167-day journey aboard the International Space Station in 2014, when he famously requested and received the SEC Network.
This new mission aboard the Starliner will give Wilmore the noteworthy achievement of heading into space aboard three different types of vehicles, with his 2009 mission coming aboard the space shuttle Atlantis and the 2014 one occurring via a Russian Soyuz rocket.
A native of Mount Juliet, Tennessee, Wilmore is one of 10 UT graduates to have spent time in space, collectively accounting for 1,150 days and around 18,400 orbits of Earth. Many of them earned their degrees through the UT Space Institute in a distance learning program that allowed them to carry out their studies while on active duty in the military.