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Alabama rocket to carry new NASA space capsule and set up a “meeting of the penguins”


NASA is preparing for a planned May launch of an Atlas-V rocket, built in Alabama. The booster is set to carry the first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner space capsule to the International Space Station. The spacecraft is currently at the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Once the vehicle docks with the orbiting outpost, there will be a meeting of two “penguins” and an automated cargo ship named for a third.

Here’s an explanation…

Astronaut Sunita Williams is on the mission of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft nicknamed “Calypso” for famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s research ship. A current member of the International Space Station crew is astronaut Tracy Caldwell-Dyson. Around NASA, they’re both known as “penguins.” It comes from their shared astronaut class. The space agency picks groups of candidates to train for missions in orbit. These groups are known as classes, and each class gets a nickname. Williams and Dyson were both members of the class of 1998, which are called “penguins.”

The story goes, the nickname came about because the candidates were selected in 1998, which was so late in the life of the Space Shuttle program, they were considered less likely to fly in space. Classmate, astronaut Clayton Anderson, another “penguin,” explains it further.

“Penguins are all dressed up with no place to go,” said Anderson. (They’re) flightless and more marketable than ‘do-do’s.’ We picked ‘penguins’ rather than let the 1996 class stick us with ‘do-do’s.’” Another NASA tradition allows the previous astronaut class to name the latest batch of rookies. The 1996 class, Anderson referred to, were known as the “sardines.”

Along with Sunita Williams and Tracy Caldwell-Dyson meeting up in space as reunited “penguins,” the orbiting laboratory is the current home of a robotic cargo carrier named for another astronaut from the class 1998. Patricia Hilliard was killed in a 2001 plane crash before flying to space. Northrop-Grumman builds the automated supply ships, and names each one after a notable person in the space program. One was dubbed the “S.S. John Glenn,” for America’s first astronaut in orbit. Another is called the “S.S. Katherine Johnson,” the NASA mathematician depicted in the motion picture “Hidden Figures.” Ther current cargo ship docked to the International Space Station is called “S.S. Patty Hilliard.”

The Atlas-V rocket set to carry the Boeing Starliner capsule to orbit was built at the United Launch Alliance factory in Decatur. It will be the first such rocket to carry astronauts.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
Related Content
  • Boeing’s new Starliner space capsule is on the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, next door to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The vehicle, on top of an Alabama built Atlas-V rocket, is scheduled for an early May blastoff to the International Space Station.
  • Supporters of the U.S. Space Program are celebrating an anniversary this year. 2023 marks fifty years since NASA launched its first space station. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center held an event last weekend to remember Skylab. Nine astronauts spent roughly six months aboard the orbiting outpost.
  • The U.S. Space Program today is marking fifty years since the launch of Skylab, NASA’s first attempt at a space station in low Earth orbit. Alabama played a key role in its development.
  • The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 manned moon landing is next week. Baby boomers may remember where they were and what they were doing when astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. The APR news team is spending the month looking at stories surrounding the historic moon landing, but not just on Armstrong’s “one small step.” APR’s Pat Duggins reported on how the astronauts got to the moon and Alabama’s role in that monumental task.
  • An Atlas-V rocket, built at the United Launch Alliance factory in Decatur, is on the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Its job is to carry two astronauts aboard the new Boeing Starliner spacecraft to orbit. A successful mission will add astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry "Butch" Wilmore to an elite group of people to have flown on three types of space vehicles.
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