I flew Boeing's Starliner spacecraft in 4 different simulators. Here's what I learned (video, photos)

a cone-shaped spacecraft in front of an american flag in a warehouse
The Boeing Starliner capsule that will fly the company’s Crew Flight Test mission to the International Space Station is shown at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in April 2023. (Image credit: Boeing/John Grant)

HOUSTON — The commander of my spacecraft prepared for a steep spin next to the space station.

"This is an alarming rotation rate. If we saw this in real life, there would be problems," Ray Bigonesse, lead rendezvous officer for Boeing's new Starliner astronaut taxi, told my crew as he twisted the joystick. Luckily for us, we were not in space but in a simulator at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) here. Also, Bigonesse emphasized, no real-life crew would even attempt what we were doing, for obvious safety reasons.

Astronauts are preparing for future Starliner missions here, at the Jake Garn Mission Simulator and Training Facility (Building 5). In fact, they've been doing it for years. Two astronauts — NASA's Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore — will fly on Starliner's 10-day Crew Flight Test mission, or CFT, which is scheduled to launch toward the International Space Station (ISS) no earlier than May 6. Next in line is a trio of astronauts at the least, for the operational six-month Starliner-1 flight in 2025.

As Boeing ramps up its commercial crew vehicles for ISS missions, each crew will spend hundreds of hours inside simulators getting ready for their flights. JSC and Boeing officials showed reporters four different simulators in Houston on March 21 to get a sense of what real-life astronaut training is like.

Related: 1st Boeing Starliner astronauts are ready to launch to the ISS for NASA (exclusive)

Both Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts in 2014 to send NASA astronauts to the space station, to replace the agency's space shuttle, which retired in 2011. SpaceX first launched astronauts to the ISS in 2020, while Boeing's debut crewed effort has been delayed due to numerous technical issues. The long wait will be worth it for safety, Boeing and NASA repeatedly emphasized to reporters during our visit. And, for the astronauts, any extra training time in the "sim" is a boon.

Bigonesse was helming a Crew Part-Task Trainer at JSC for us to simulate docking and undocking with the ISS. Before he spun the spacecraft, the display showed our Starliner safely approaching the complex in an imaginary seven-degree cone. The cone was quite obviously displayed on the screen, making it easy to see that we were on course.

"With the exception of real buttons, this is exactly what it looks like," Bigonesse said of the cockpit. "In fact, the display parts are exactly what the real displays are showing. If I didn't mention it earlier, we're running the actual flight software."

Williams, in a press conference here at JSC on March 22, said she was grateful she and other astronauts could provide "input as testers" to improve the displays. "We were able to influence some of the design to get us the full capability that we wanted," said Williams, a former test pilot. 

As an example, she said the team made design changes to the software following a cockpit test in which the team found "discrepancies that we wanted to get fixed," changes that made it easier the second time they attempted the test.

A Boeing Starliner Crew Part-Task Trainer simulator at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, with the displays the crews will use during their mission. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

The mission designers try to take advantage of "the universe in its ultimate elegance" to bring the crew safely to the station, Bigonesse emphasized. That means using the mathematics of orbital mechanics, or how things naturally move in space. Automatic controls can steer the spacecraft to a great extent, while the crew is trained to jump in if trouble arises.

Bigonesse demonstrated the translational hand controller that controls up, down, left and right motions, along with a rotational hand controller that moves the spacecraft in pitch and roll directions. While it's tempting to space-cowboy ourselves close to the space station, he said astronauts learn that "nothing is fast in proximity operations."

Especially when a spacecraft is only 30 feet (10 meters) away from the space station. "Things get really scary, real quick," Bigonesse said. That's why the spacecraft has so many backups, aside from the crew training. In fact, switching from autonomous to piloted flight takes several motions: swiping up on a switch that says "Flight Controller," then raising the switch covers in two places to make the sticks "hot," or controllable. 

Related: You can dock a SpaceX Crew Dragon at the space station in this free simulator

Ray Bigonesse (right), Starliner lead rendezvous officer, using a company Part Time Task Trainer at NASA's Johnson Space Center on March 21, 2024. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

Unlike SpaceX, Boeing elected to use switches, buttons and manual controllers in the spacecraft because touchscreens are usually not "hardened" or protected against radiation. The company also preferred the old-school style to make it harder to accidentally trigger the wrong setting if an astronaut brushed against the controls.

Incidentally, for the extra challenge of reaching up to a switch in launch pad configuration, I had the chance to briefly sit in the Boeing Mission Trainer at JSC's Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (Building 9). Crews don't really learn switch configurations here, but they do get used to coming in and out of the spacecraft. With enough imagination, you can even look out the nearby window and imagine the blackness of space outside.

Related: Boeing begins fueling Starliner capsule ahead of 1st astronaut launch

Space.com staff writer Elizabeth Howell sitting in a Starliner Boeing Mission Trainer simulator at NASA Johnson Space Center's Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (Building 9) on March 21, 2022. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

Some of the Starliner switches, as we tested elsewhere, are simple toggles up and down. But a selection of the switches required a different motion: pull the switch out first, then carefully nudge it in the right direction. Buttons, if critical, were protected behind liftable plastic panels.

One might be fooled into thinking this design is a complete call-back to the Apollo program of the 1960s and 1970s that brought a couple of dozen people to the moon, among other milestones. But Bigonesse had warned us that is only partially true. Apollo astronauts often navigated by "line of sight piloting techniques," which the Starliner astronauts only do occasionally (usually in case of emergency). 

The newer Boeing spacecraft, rather, uses laser sensors that have been tested through the space shuttle era. But the backup training conducted by astronauts remains crucial: "We know from flying the shuttle, 135 missions, that every single sensor that has ever flown in space has either had some kind of ground failure or in-space anomaly," Bigonesse said. "We want to build in the secondary and tertiary systems that allow us to use plain old eyeballs to fly the spacecraft."

Tim Terry, Starliner chief training officer, in the Boeing Mission Simulator at NASA's Johnson Space Center Jake Garn Mission Simulator and Training Facility (Building 5) on March 21, 2022. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

In the Boeing Mission Simulator, with every switch laid out just like a real cockpit, we simulated a nominal launch with me in the commander's seat (and yes, I got to throw some switches, although not when we were in the training program.)

As I was untrained, I got an easier ride than the astronauts would. "We often introduce problems," Tim Terry, Starliner chief training officer, told us. "That's what we're paid to do, is overcome problems."

Terry and his team often spend a week or two scripting "scenarios" for the crew to practice dealing with anomalies a week or two before each simulation. "Then we launch, and things start happening. They [the astronauts] have got to react to those things: fix them, walk around them, save the day. That's how I get paid."

A view of the Boeing Mission Simulator displays of Starliner, including the abort panel, taken during a media tour at NASA's Johnson Space Center on March 21, 2024. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

The simulator produces normal launch noises and displays, if not the sensations. We heard the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket — Starliner's ride off Earth — ignite, along with the firing up of the solid rocket boosters. The "eight ball" indicating forces of gravity upon us began rocking, and various displays showed us the time remaining until main engine cutoff, notional velocity and other critical numbers to tell us if things were going well (or not).

Given the astronauts and teams are used to nominal and off-nominal scenarios after years working of together, the refinement is now about communication. "We're watching, how do the teams integrate and coordinate with each other? What is the communication line from the Starliner crew to the Mission Control? What is the communication line between the two mission control teams?" Terry said.

"Those are the more nuanced things that I'm looking at. As we get close to flight ... I'm looking for, What's the performance of the overall larger team?"

Elizabeth Howell, Space.com staff writer, tries out Varjo's virtual reality Starliner trainer at NASA Johnson Space Center's Jake Garn Mission Simulator and Training Facility (Building 5) on March 21, 2022. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

Then there's the real leap forward compared to the Apollo generation: virtual reality. Finnish company Varjo uses Unreal Engine-powered VR software that allows you to interact with a Starliner cockpit. I got to try that experience for about 15 minutes, and as a fairly avid console gamer, I had a great time in the virtual world.

With some practice, the Varjo enterprise-class XR-4 controllers feel pretty intuitive, too: you can move a virtual pair of hands around the cockpit and throw switches and push buttons. A tiny bit of haptic feedback tells you when you've hit the right spot.

"Traditional simulators are often physically constrained to a certain location, and they are very expensive to manufacture. There are limited hours that you can spend ... inside a physical simulator," Annaleena Kuronen, Varjo's head of communication, told Space.com.

"A VR simulator can replicate that same visual experience of sitting inside a simulator, with all the details. But the system is completely portable. So all you need is a PC, a headset, and possibly some tracking technology. It all fits into a suitcase, which means that if you're remote ... we're able to continue training, as you would be sitting in the physical simulator with a much less expensive system."

In comments at a press conference March 22, Wilmore praised the new VR capability, saying it helps "refresh our memory" on maintenance tasks and other checklist items.

"That's a technology that hasn't existed in the past, [that] virtual reality of the cockpit," the NASA astronaut said. That tech, he added, will help the crew train on "very important things that we might have to do maintenance on, in a certain specific scenario."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace