UT will once again have a presence in space in 2021, as NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore has been bumped up to the flight crew of the inaugural launch of the CST Starliner, NASA’s latest crewed vehicle. Wilmore earned his master’s degree in aviation systems from UT Knoxville through the UT Space Institute in 1994.
The Boeing Starliner is a crewed capsule that can be fitted to one of four different types of rockets. Its look is reminiscent of the NASA’s Apollo era, although slightly larger—it can hold up to seven astronauts as opposed to Apollo’s three—and is designed to be reused on up to 10 missions.
Wilmore had been serving as backup for the flight since training for it began in 2018, but was moved to the prime crew after fellow astronaut Chris Ferguson bowed out of the mission.
“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 on an as-of-yet unscheduled date in 2021.
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 during his stay in space.
This new mission aboard the Starliner will give him 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 Mt. Juliet, Wilmore is one of 10 UT graduates to have spent time in space, accounting for 1150 days and around 18,400 orbits of earth. Many of those astronauts got their degrees from studying at the UT Space Institute through a distance learning program that allowed them to gain their degree while on active duty in the military.