A new app to map and monitor the world’s freshwater supplyA new app to map and monitor the world’s freshwater supply

Today, on World Water Day, we’re proud to showcase a new platform enabling all countries to freely measure and monitor when and where water is changing: UN’s Water-Related Ecosystems, or sdg661.app. Released last week in Nairobi at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), the app provides statistics for every country’s annual surface water (like lakes and rivers). It also shows changes from 1984 through 2018 through interactive maps, graphs and full-data downloads.

This project is only possible because of the unique partnerships between three very different organizations. In 2016, European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and Google released the Global Surface Water Explorer in tandem with a publication in “Nature.” An algorithm developed by the JRC to map water was run on Google Earth Engine. The process took more than 10 million hours of computing time, spread across more than 10,000 computers in parallel, a feat that would have taken 600 years if run on a modern desktop computer. But the sheer magnitude of the high resolution global data product tended to limit analysis to only the most tech savvy users and countries.

The new app, created in partnership with United Nations Environment, aims to make this water data available to everyone. Working with member countries to understand their needs, it features smaller, more easily manageable tables and maps at national and water body levels. Countries can compare data with one another, and for the first time gain greater understanding of the effects of water policy, and infrastructure like dams, diversions, and irrigation practices on water bodies that are shared across borders.

Ask a Techspert: Why am I getting so many spam calls?Ask a Techspert: Why am I getting so many spam calls?

Editor’s Note: Do you ever feel like a fish out of water? Try being a tech novice and talking to an engineer at a place like Google. Ask a Techspert is a new series on the Keyword asking Googler experts to explain complicated technology for the rest of us. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but just enough to make you sound smart at a dinner party.

Growing up, I was taught to say “Schottenfels residence” when answering the phone. It was the polite way of doing things. When the phone rang, it was usually family, friends and, yes, the occasional telemarketer on the other side of the line. Then things changed. Personal calls moved to mobile phones, and the landline became the domain of robocalls. My cell was a sanctuary, free of the pesky automated dialers that plague the landlines of yore. Until recently.

Today, it feels like the only phone calls I get are spam calls. And I know I’m not alone. According to a recent Google survey, half of respondents received at least one spam call per day, and one third received two or more per day.

And people are answering those calls. More than one third of respondents worry that a call from an unknown number is a call about a loved one, and another third think it could be a call from a potential loved one, so they pick up. And almost everyone agrees: Spam calls are the worst. In fact, 75 percent of those surveyed think spam calls are more annoying than spam texts or emails.

So what’s the deal with spam calls? And how can we stop them from happening? For the latest edition of Ask a Techspert, I spoke to Paul Dunlop, the product manager for the Google Phone App, to better understand why, all of the sudden, spam calls are happening so frequently, and what tools, like Pixel’s Call Screen feature, you can use  to avoid the headache.

Why spam calls are more common lately

According to Paul, voice-over IP (VoIP) is the culprit. These are phone calls made using the web instead of a traditional telephone line, and today they’re cheaper and easier than ever to use. “Using VoIP technology, spammers place phone calls over the Internet and imitate a different phone number,” Paul says. “It used to be that they had a fixed number, and you could block that number. Now with VoIP, spammers have the ability to imitate any phone number.” Paul says this became possible when companies, which wanted to call customers from call centers, made it so one general 1-800 number for a business showed up on caller IDs. So what started as a common-sense solution ended up becoming an easy loophole for spammers.

This is called spoofing, and there’s nothing in phone systems—the infrastructure of telephones—that can prevent spam callers from imitating numbers. “You can actually be spammed by your own phone number,” Paul says. “But the most common is neighborhood spam, using your area code and the first three digits of your phone number, which increases the likelihood you’ll answer.”

How Pixel can help you avoid picking up spam calls

Hot off the press: Talking media with Google News Lab’s directorHot off the press: Talking media with Google News Lab’s director

When I was growing up, reading the news meant thumbing through the local paper every week on my way to the Sunday comics section. These days, staying up-to-date on world events looks a little different: I skim email newsletters, scroll through social media feeds, occasionally pick up a magazine, and of course, read Google News.

As newsrooms around the world keep up with these changes, there’s one team at Google thinking about how technology can help build the future of media: the News Lab. To mark the one-year anniversary of the Google News Initiative, I sat down with News Lab’s director and cofounder, Olivia Ma, for today’s She Word interview. Here’s what I learned—straight from the source—about why Olivia set out on this career path, how she stays focused in a world where the news never sleeps and what she’s reading outside of the office.

How do you explain your job at a dinner party?

As the mother of two young kids, I don’t make it to that many dinner parties these days. But if I find myself at a table filled with adults, I’d tell them this: I lead a team at Google called News Lab that works with newsrooms across the globe to help them navigate the transition to a digital future. 

In the early days of News Lab, we focused on training journalists to use our products that helped them tell stories, such as Google Trends and Google Earth. Now, we immerse ourselves in the needs of journalists, publishers and news consumers so that our engineering teams can build better products. Every day we work to answer the question: How can technology play a role in helping newsrooms grow their audiences and build sustainable businesses?

What initially drew you to journalism?  

My dad spent his career working as a journalist at publications like Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report and The Washington Post. As a kid, my class would visit my his office to learn about how magazines and newspapers were printed—the old fashioned way, with ink and paper.

It wasn’t until college that I also caught the journalism bug, and I decided to dedicate my career to tackling the tricky challenges facing the news industry. By that time, my dad had started working at The Washington Post where he helped transition the newspaper online. Up until he passed away in 2011 we’d talk about what we thought journalism would look like in the digital age. I’m honored to continue his legacy—albeit from a different vantage point.

Managed Google Play earns key certifications for security and privacyManaged Google Play earns key certifications for security and privacy

With managed Google Play, organizations can build a customized and secure mobile application storefront for their teams, featuring public and private applications. Organizations’ employees can take advantage of the familiarity of a mobile app store to browse and download company-approved apps.

As with any enterprise-grade platform, it’s critical that the managed Google Play Store operates with the highest standards of privacy and security. Managed Google Play has been awarded three important industry designations that are marks of meeting the strict requirements for information security management practices.

Granted by the International Organization for Standardization, achieving ISO 27001 certification demonstrates that a company meets stringent privacy and security standards when operating an Information Security Management System (ISMS). Additionally, managed Google Play received SOC 2 and 3 reports, which are benchmarks of strict data management and privacy controls. These designations and auditing procedures are developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

Meeting a high bar of security management standards

To earn the ISO 27001 certification, auditors from Ernst & Young performed a thorough audit of managed Google Play based on established privacy principles. The entire methodology of documentation and procedures for managing other companies’ data are reviewed during an audit, and must be made available for regular compliance review. Companies that use managed Google Play are assured their data is managed in compliance with this industry standard. Additionally, ISO 27001 certification is in line with GDPR compliance.

Secure data management

With SOC 2 and SOC 3 reports, the focus is on controls relevant to data security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality and privacy, which are verified through auditing reports. In managed Google Play, the data and private applications that enter Google’s systems are administered according to strict protocols, including determinations for who can view them and under what conditions. Enterprises require and receive the assurance that their information is handled with the utmost confidentiality and that the integrity of their data is preserved. For many companies, the presence of an SOC 2 and 3 report is a requirement when selecting a specific service. These reports prove that a service company has met and is abiding by best practices set forth by AICPA to ensure data security.

Our ongoing commitment to enterprise security

With managed Google Play, companies’ private apps for internal use are protected with a set of verified information security management processes and policies to ensure intellectual property is secure. This framework includes managed Google Play accounts that are used by enterprise mobility management (EMM) partners to manage devices.

Our commitment is that Android will continue to be a leader in enterprise security. As your team works across devices and shares mission-critical data through applications hosted in managed Google Play, you have the assurance of a commitment to providing your enterprise the highest standards of security and privacy.

Build your next iOS and Android app with FlutterBuild your next iOS and Android app with Flutter

And Supernova, a design-to-code tool, recently announced support for exporting Sketch designs directly to Flutter, allowing users of this popular design and wire-framing tool to turn their ideas directly into code.

Fast apps on each platform

Rather than introducing a layer of abstraction between your code and the underlying operating system, Flutter apps are native apps—meaning they compile directly to both iOS and Android devices.

Flutter’s programming language, Dart, is designed around the needs of apps that are created for global audiences. It’s easy to learn, contains a comprehensive set of libraries and packages that reduce the amount of code you have to write and is built for developer performance. When you’re ready to release your app, you can compile your code directly to the ARM machine code of your phone—meaning what you write is exactly what appears on the device—so you can harness the full power of your phone, rather than using a language like JavaScript that needs a separate engine to run.

Russia wants to cut itself off from the global internet. Here’s what that really means.

In the next two weeks, Russia is planning to attempt something no other country has tried before. It’s going to test whether it can disconnect from the rest of the world electronically while keeping the internet running for its citizens. This means it will have to reroute all its data internally, rather than relying on servers abroad.

The test is key to a proposed “sovereign internet” law currently working its way through Russia’s government. It looks likely to be eventually voted through and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, though it has stalled in parliament for now.

Pulling an iron curtain down over the internet is a simple idea, but don’t be fooled: it’s a fiendishly difficult technical challenge to get right. It is also going to be very expensive. The project’s initial cost has been set at $38 million by Russia’s financial watchdog, but it’s likely to require far more funding than that. One of the authors of the plan has said it’ll be more like $304 million, Bloomberg reports, but even that figure, industry experts say, won’t be enough to get the system up and running, let alone maintain it.

Not only that, but it has already proved deeply unpopular with the general public. An estimated 15,000 people took to the streets in Moscow earlier this month to protest the law, one of the biggest demonstrations in years.

Operation disconnect

So how will Russia actually disconnect itself from the global internet? “It is unclear what the ‘disconnect test’ might entail,” says Andrew Sullivan, president and CEO of the Internet Society. All we know is that if it passes, the new law will require the nation’s internet service providers (ISPs) to use only exchange points inside the country that are approved by Russia’s telecoms regulator, Roskomnadzor.

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These exchange points are where internet service providers connect with each other. It’s where their cabling meets at physical locations to exchange traffic. These locations are overseen by organizations known as internet exchange providers (IXPs). Russia’s largest IXP is in Moscow, connecting cities in Russia’s east but also Riga in neighboring Latvia.

MSK-IX, as this exchange point is known, is one of the world’s largest. It connects over 500 different ISPs and handles over 140 gigabits of throughput during peak hours on weekdays. There are six other internet exchange points in Russia, spanning most of its 11 time zones. Many ISPs also use exchanges that are physically located in neighboring countries or that are owned by foreign companies. These would now be off limits. Once this stage is completed, it would provide Russia with a literal, physical “on/off switch” to decide whether its internet is shielded from the outside world or kept open.

What’s in a name?

As well as rerouting its ISPs, Russia will also have to unplug from the global domain name system (DNS) so traffic cannot be rerouted through any exchange points that are not inside Russia.

The DNS is basically a phone book for the internet: when you type, for example, “google.com” into your browser, your computer uses the DNS to translate this domain name into an IP address, which identifies the correct server on the internet to send the request. If one server won’t respond to a request, another will step in. Traffic behaves rather like water—it will seek any gap it can to flow through.

“The creators of the DNS wanted to create a system able to work even when bits of it stopped working, regardless of whether the decision to break parts of it was deliberate or accidental,” says Brad Karp, a computer scientist at University College London. This in-built resilience in the underlying structure of the internet will make Russia’s plan even harder to carry out.

The actual mechanics of the DNS are operated by a wide variety of organizations, but a majority of the “root servers,” which are its foundational layer, are run by groups in the US. Russia sees this as a strategic weakness and wants to create its own alternative, setting up an entire new network of its own root servers.

“An alternate DNS can be used to create an alternate reality for the majority of Russian internet users,” says Ameet Naik, an expert on internet monitoring for the software company ThousandEyes. “Whoever controls this directory controls the internet.” Thus, if Russia can create its own DNS, it will have at least a semblance of control over the internet within its borders.

This won’t be easy, says Sullivan. It will involve configuring tens of thousands of systems, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to identify all the different access points citizens use to get online (their laptops, smartphones, iPads, and so on). Some of them will be using servers abroad, such as Google’s Public DNS, which Russia simply won’t be able to replicate—so the connection will fail when a Russian user tries to access them.

If Russia can successfully set up its own DNS infrastructure across the country and compel its ISPs to use it, then Russian users are likely not to notice, unless they try to access a website that’s censored. For example, a user trying to connect to facebook.com could be redirected to vk.com, which is a Russian social-media service with an uncanny resemblance to Facebook. 

This coming test—no official date has been given— will show us whether the necessary preparation has been done. For the West, it’s important not to underestimate the Russian state’s will, or ability, to make sure it happens.

Resilience and control

The purpose, the Kremlin says, is to make Russia’s internet independent and easier to defend against attacks from abroad. To begin with, it could help Russia resist existing sanctions from the US and the EU, and any potential future measures. It also makes sense to make the internet inside your country accessible in the event it gets physically severed from the rest of the world. For example, in 2008 there were three separate instances of major damage to the internet’s physical cabling under the sea (blamed on ships’ anchors), which cut off access for users in the Middle East, India, and Singapore. If the affected countries had been able to reroute traffic, this disruption might have been avoided.

Many observers see the move as part of Russia’s long tradition of trying to control the flow of information between citizens. Russia has already passed legislation requiring search engines to delete some results, and in 2014 it obliged social networks to store Russian users’ data on servers inside the country. It has also banned encrypted messaging apps like Telegram. Just this week, Russia’s government signed into law two new vaguely worded bills that make it a crime to “disrespect the state” or spread “fake news” online. The new plan to reroute Russian traffic is an “escalation,” says Sergey Sanovich, a Russian researcher at Stanford who specializes in online censorship. “I’d say it’s a dangerous escalation,” he adds.

Photo of demonstrators shouting and hold signs during the Free Internet rally

ASSOCIATED PRESS

If so, it’s an escalation that has been a long time coming. The conversation between ISPs and the security services has been going on for more than two decades, according to Keir Giles, an expert on Russian security who works for the think tank Chatham House. Security officials in Russia have always seen the internet as more of a threat than an opportunity.

“Russia wants to be able to do this while insulating itself from the consequences, by preemptively cutting itself off from global infrastructure,” Giles says.

If Russia is seeking inspiration, it need just look east. China has been terrifically successful in shaping the online experience for its citizens to its advantage. However, China decided to exert a high degree of control over the development of the internet while it was at a nascent stage. Russia was preoccupied at that time with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so it is quite late to the party. China embedded the homegrown ISP and DNS infrastructure that Russia hopes to construct way back in the early 2000s. Trying to impose this architecture retrospectively is an awful lot harder. “China took control very early on, and decided that all traffic in and out must be controlled and regulated,” says Naik.

The fallout

In contrast, Russian businesses and citizens are firmly enmeshed in the global internet and use a lot more foreign services, such as Microsoft cloud tools, than Chinese people do. It’s not yet clear what impact the disconnection will have on these, but it’s possible that if the plug is pulled on external traffic routes, Russian citizens may lose access to them. While many cloud services can “mirror” their content in different regions, none of the major cloud services (Microsoft, Google or Amazon Web Services) have data centers based in Russia. Replicating these services within Russia’s borders is not trivial and would require significant investment and time, says Naik. The coming test might be intended to address this issue, according to Sullivan.

Another potential problem is that many Russian ISPs carry traffic on behalf of other companies or ISPs, with reciprocal arrangements that they carry traffic for Russian ISPs too. If it’s done incorrectly, Russia’s plan means a “whole bunch of the traffic going in and out of Russia will just fall into a black hole,” says Naik.

If the experiment goes wrong and large parts of the internet go down in Russia, it could cost the nation’s economy dearly (disconnecting from the internet has been incredibly costly for countries that have experienced it, deliberately or otherwise). That doesn’t mean the Kremlin won’t go ahead with it anyway, Giles believes.

If it happens, don’t expect Russians to hand over their internet rights freely: as in China, it’s likely that determined, tech-savvy citizens will be able to exploit any weaknesses in the system and circumvent it. For example, during protests in Turkey, people shared ways to access the global DNS directly, thus thwarting their government’s block on social-media websites.

One recent event that may have given Russia more impetus to push forward with the plan is the hacking by the US Cyber Command of the Internet Research Agency, the infamous Russian “troll factory” that allegedly used social media to sow division in the US during the 2016 election.

“The threat is real. The number of people who access antigovernment internet content is growing,” says Kirill Gusov, a journalist and political expert in Moscow. The government controls the media and television, but the internet remains beyond its grasp. “I’d not be surprised if the FSB [the successor to the KGB] approached Putin and reported on this attack, which coincided with their desire to suppress internet freedom because they are losing control over society,” he says.

Though it’s still not clear when if ever the law will become a reality, the Russian government isn’t known for being flexible or responsive to public pressure. It’s far more likely to be delayed than dead.

How El País used AI to make their comments section less toxicHow El País used AI to make their comments section less toxic

At El País, our vision for the perfect comments section was a place where readers would provide input, insight and tips on an investigative story, add knowledge about niche topics, double check facts and elevate the conversation to a different level. While the internet has brought amazing benefits, it didn’t deliver the utopia we—and others—had hoped for within the comments section. Around 2015, trolls, toxic comments, spam, insults and even threats took over, causing publishers to re-evaluate investing in this section of the online paper. No one seemed able to fix this broken system and several several sites either limited the amount of articles opened to comment, or shut them down completely.

We also thought about closing down comments at El País, but ultimately let them be. That was until last year, when the Google News Initiative contacted us to talk about Perspective API,  a free tool developed by Jigsaw that uses a machine learning model trained by human-generated comments labeled as toxic by human moderators. At that point Perspective API was available in English, but the aim was to use the more than 300,000 comments our readers write every month to train the model in Spanish. Earlier this year, we  partnered with Jigsaw to analyze our vast trove of public comments to understand how to spot toxicity in Spanish. We worked closely with the Jigsaw team to test the models and provided feedback in order to improve overall accuracy of the tool.

Now, when someone tries to post a toxic comment on our site we’ll show them a message in real time suggesting they make changes or rewrite it so that it’ll pass our moderation system. Since we put this system in place, the average toxicity of the comments has gone down seven percent and the number of comments has gone up 19%—leading us to suspect that the comments section is a nicer place and one our readers want to engage in. We’ve also improved the moderation process by sending the more toxic comments to experienced moderators and the less toxic to the less experienced ones.

Digital News Innovation Fund: three years in, and 662 total projects supportedDigital News Innovation Fund: three years in, and 662 total projects supported

Once again, we asked large (up to €1 million) and medium (up to €300,000) applicants to focus on one of the most pressing issues identified by the news ecosystem: the diversification of revenue streams. We were excited to see such a wide variety of approaches from some of the biggest names in the industry alongside relative newcomers. Artificial intelligence and machine learning projects continued to be a top technology focus, and Round 6 applications demonstrated clear interest in exploring opportunities around driving subscriptions, creating new payment models and finding ways to minimize churn.

Across the prototype track (up to €50,000 awards), applicants offered plenty of stimulating new thinking, with individuals, organizations and companies looking at everything from fact checking to augmented reality.

Here’s a small selection of the projects that were offered funding in this round:

Single Sign-On, SSO Geste, France

The largest collaboration of publishers ever seen in France has formed a consortium and will receive €750,000 to create a Single Sign-On platform for more than 22 major media groups.

The ThinkIn Organised Listening Platform, Tortoise, UK

This start-up company is developing a new type of participation tool for users of its “slow journalism” enterprise, which will be the digital equivalent of giving members a seat at the newsroom table. It was awarded €553,000.

Readers club, DuMont.next, Germany

Digital unit of German publisher Dumont Mediengruppe will receive €475,000 to launch a gamified local rewards program. It will increase engagement and e-commerce on its local Hamburger Morgenpost site by rewarding all registered users on their sites with a virtual currency that can be used for products on their other platforms.

SAC (Subscription Accelerator Content), Diario de Navarra, Spain

The SAC is a collaborative project between this regional Spanish publisher and Hiberius Media Lab to develop a tool using AI and machine learning. The tool will provide real-time data-driven insights on which pieces of their published content successfully converts readers into subscribers and which retains them as engaged readers. It will receive €206,150.

PressHub Market, Freedom House, Romania

This Romanian journalism platform will receive €49,700 to develop revenue opportunities for its small independent member publications by building an advertisement marketplace for them to access and profit from.

Launching the Google News Innovation Challenge in Europe to support local news

Stimulating innovation within the news industry takes time. We’re in it for the long haul. That’s why we launched the Google News Initiative one year ago, a $300 million commitment to help journalism thrive. As part of these efforts—and after a pilot in Asia—the GNI Innovation Challenge will roll out in Europe. For this first round, we’ll specifically look for ideas around “local” journalism, since we know that building a sustainable business model for local news is a challenge here in Europe, similar to other parts of the world. The application window for this first European GNI Challenge will open this spring. In the meantime, I invite all applicants to check our website for more information, specific dates and eligibility requirements, which will be announced soon. We look forward to receiving GNI Challenge applications, as well as continuing to learn from the news ecosystem and participating publishers.

Honoring J.S. Bach with our first AI-powered DoodleHonoring J.S. Bach with our first AI-powered Doodle

Today’s Doodle is the result of a collaboration between the Doodle, Magenta and PAIR teams at Google. The Magenta team aims to help people make music and art using machine learning, and PAIR produces tools or experiences to make machine learning enjoyable for everyone.

The first step in creating an AI-powered Doodle was building a machine learning model to power it. Machine learning is the process of teaching a computer to come up with its own answers by showing it a lot of examples, instead of giving it a set of rules to follow (as is done in traditional computer programming). Anna Huang, an AI Resident on Magenta, developed Coconet, a model that can be used in a wide range of musical tasks—such as harmonizing melodies, creating smooth transitions between disconnected fragments of music and composing from scratch (check out more of these technical details in today’s Magenta blog post).

Next, we personalized the model to match Bach’s musical style. To do this, we trained Coconet on 306 of Bach’s chorale harmonizations. His chorales always have four voices: each carries their own melodic line, creating a rich harmonic progression when played together. This concise structure makes the melodic lines good training data for a machine learning model. So when you create a melody of your own on the model in the Doodle, it harmonizes that melody in Bach’s specific style.

Beyond the artistic and machine learning elements of the Doodle, we needed a lot of servers in order to make sure people around the world could use the Doodle. Historically, machine learning has been run on servers, which means that info is sent from a person’s computer to data centers, and then the results are sent back to the computer. Using this same approach for the Bach Doodle would have generated a lot of back-and-forth traffic.

To make this work, we used PAIR’s TensorFlow.js, which allows machine learning to happen entirely within an internet browser. However, for cases where someone’s computer or device might not be fast enough to run the Doodle using TensorFlow.js, the machine learning model is run on Google’s new Tensor Processing Units (TPUs), a way of quickly handling machine learning tasks in data centers. Today’s Doodle is the first one ever to use TPUs in this way.

Head over to today’s Doodle and find out what your collaboration with the famous composer sounds like!

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

Photograph of Astronaut Mike Fincke

Nasa Johnson | Flickr

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.

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 mission to six months. So my training is making sure we know what to do on our own spaceship, but then be ready for another six-month space mission. I’ve already done two of those, so that’s the part I bring to the team, whereas my colleagues Nicole Mann and Chris Ferguson from Boeing—they’re focused on the spaceship.

So where are the preparations at right now?
Right now, the spacecraft itself, the CST-100 Starliner, is going through its testing phase. At the end of each phase we go check it out and spend time with our little baby spaceship. Well, it’s not a little baby. It’s a big baby.

The second thing taking a lot of time for me is to catch up on the space station. The space station, of course, is an international project, so I have to spend five weeks in Russia to see the Russian part. I’ll spend a week in Europe and a week in Japan. So a lot of my schedule is getting back up to speed with the modern-day space station, as well as focusing on our new spacecraft. So it’s very busy.

Artists rendering of Boeing Starliner

Boeing

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Are you communicating back and forth with the upcoming SpaceX crew as well? Since they could likely be going up before you all.
Well, I wouldn’t say “likely” before. Just because they did their first mission doesn’t mean their second is going to happen quickly. But yeah, I still keep in great touch with my colleagues at SpaceX, not to compare and contrast our spacecraft, but to make sure we’re all focused on the right thing for our mission. They have a very similar mission to us. They just won’t have the option to stay for six months [Boeing is the only one with the contract option from NASA to do so], but they’re flight-testing a new spaceship. We haven’t done that since 1981 with the space shuttle.

What are the biggest milestones remaining for you before the launch?
One of the biggest for me personally, and for the program, is our friends from SpaceX just came back from their Demo 1 mission. We are about to launch our orbital flight test (OFT) mission in the next couple of months. And that is going to be a very big deal. Once OFT launches, docks at the space station, and comes back safely, it’ll really help us understand how ready we are for the flight test. So we’re watching the spacecraft performance, seeing how it’s doing, and helping the teams overcome any challenges along the way. That’s going to be exciting, as well as making sure we’re ready for the space station—being trained for space walks and robo-arm operations. That’s a lot of work to accomplish. We’re doing things that most crews have a year or two to do. We are trying to compress it all into six to eight months.

Do you plan to stay on as an astronaut for another launch after this one?
We’ll see. It’s been eight and a half years since my last launch, and I don’t know if I want to wait another eight to 10 years for another one, but you know—it’s been worth every minute of the wait.