From left, NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore and family pose for a photo with Billy Stover and family.
Photo credit: Billy Stover

As NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore launches aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station Monday, May 6 on its first crewed flight, one of his best friends will have played a key role in getting him there. 

Billy Stover, chief safety officer for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and Wilmore have been friends for more than 40 years. The pair’s friendship began in the 1980s at Tennessee Tech University on the football field. 

“We would do weight training and we would get paired up,” said Stover. “If he did 50 sit-ups, I had to do 55. Or we would see how many sit-ups we could get done in 30 seconds or vice versa – we were not kind to each other.” 

As a representative in the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance’s technical authority, Stover oversees coordination and integration within NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, enacting quality processes and conducting risk analysis to ensure the safety of crews to and from low Earth orbit. 

Wilmore and NASA astronaut Suni Williams will fly Starliner, lifting off aboard United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, for about a one week stay aboard the space station, in support of NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test

Stover says he gets goosebumps thinking about the years of work and excitement that have gone into the upcoming crew flight test launch. 

“I will tell you that I’m a little bit calmer than I have been for probably the past two years,” Stover said. “The team has been amazing in working through each challenge and test anomalies to get us to the right place to execute the launch. What we do every single day makes history.” 

Both men briefly lost touch after college when their careers took them in different directions, as Wilmore became a Navy pilot and Stover pursued engineering. In 2002, Stover ran into Wilmore walking out of the Launch Control Center during a space shuttle launch campaign at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and reconnected. 

Since then, Stover and Wilmore find the opportunity to speak weekly or as often as they can – even if one of them happens to be off planet. In 2014, Wilmore made time to call Stover at Christmas while aboard the space station for Expedition 41. 

“On my answering machine was a message from Barry calling me from the space station to wish me and my family a ‘Merry Christmas.’” Stover said. “I saved that message for three years. How many people get a call from space?” 

When Wilmore received the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt award at the NCAA Awards Presentation, the association’s highest honor exemplifying the ideals of college sports, Stover attended. Former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn, astronaut Sally Ride, and flight director Christopher C. Kraft Jr. also received the award. 

“He interjected me in his acceptance speech, which was really special,” Stover said. “We’re like brothers.” 

Billy Stover and Butch Wilmore pose during Second from left, Billy Stover poses next to Butch Wilmore, middle, during Theodore Roosevelt award ceremony in January 2018
Second from left, Billy Stover and attendees pose next to Barry “Butch” Wilmore, middle, during Theodore Roosevelt award ceremony in January 2018.
Photo credit: Billy Stover

Their 40-year friendship expanded beyond football and space. Now with a son in the Navy, Stover says that Wilmore is more than a friend; he’s also a mentor. 

“We both have a wife and two kids, similar backgrounds, and values on how we manage ourselves,” Stover said. “Barry’s turned into a great mentor for my oldest son, who’s an officer in the Navy.” Wilmore is a retired U.S. Navy captain. 

From left, NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore and family pose with Billy Stover and family during a visit to a Florida theme park.
Photo credit: Billy Stover

Both men have a love for theme parks and frequently plan trips to them. In fact, Stover’s own travel plans will take him away from Florida and he won’t see NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test launch. Instead, he’ll be on a transatlantic cruise that was booked more than a year ago. 

“It’s a weird feeling that I’m not going to be here physically,” Stover said. “Godspeed to him and Suni. I’m always here for them.” 

Stover and Wilmore no longer use that competitive spirit against each other but still work out from time to time. 

“In his position, he’s a lot more disciplined and in better condition than me, but now he’s nice about it,” Stover said.  

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry to launch astronauts on American rockets and spacecraft from American soil to the International Space Station. This innovative approach is helping the agency maintain a human presence in low Earth orbit and enable exploration to the Moon in preparation for Mars for the benefit of humanity.