Meet the veteran astronaut who’ll be on the first launch of Boeing’s Starliner

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.

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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…