SpaceX is ready to launch its first astronauts into space this spring: Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.
Their flight on the company’s Crew Dragon spaceship will observe the first time an American spacecraft has taken NASA astronauts ever since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.
Behnken and Hurley’s takeoff is expected to introduce a new era of US spaceflight, as it will allow NASA to stop depending on Russian launch systems to take astronauts into space. It will perhaps also make the two astronauts the first-ever to fly a commercial spacecraft.
“Bob and I were lucky enough to be nominated together,” Hurley told The Atlantic in September. “As we get nearer to launch, things in the last year have actually been quite hectic. We’ve been spending more time in California because that’s where much of the work is being done for Dragon.”
In groundwork, they have gone through emergency procedures, undertaken extensive training the Crew Dragon’s mechanisms, dressed in their new spacesuits, and met with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
“People to a degree think it’s pretty trendy to be able to go into space, but it’s actually like a chaotic camping trip,” Hurley told Reuters in June.
Following is how the astronauts were selected and how they’re preparing to fly Crew Dragon to the space station.
In 2018, NASA nominated Behnken and Hurley to be the first astronauts to fly SpaceX’s new spaceship. They will perhaps be the first to operate any commercial spacecraft.
SpaceX built its Crew Dragon spaceship as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, a competition that encouraged private companies to build new astronaut-ready spacecraft.
Altogether, NASA selected nine astronauts to carry the first human test flights of the Crew Dragon and its Boeing equivalent, the CST-100 Starliner.
Musk anticipates sending Behnken and Hurley to the International Space Station on Crew Dragon’s first crewed test flight – known as Demo-2 – in April, May, or June.
That would be the first time an American spacecraft has sent astronauts since 2011, when the space shuttle program finished.
Behnken and Hurley have been working in association with SpaceX on the Crew Dragon’s development since 2015, so they’re fully equipped to fly the spacecraft.
Both men began as military pilots. Hurley spent nearly 24 years as a test and fighter pilot in the Marine Corps, recording over 5,500 hours in more than 25 different aircraft. Behnken was an Air Force test pilot. He logged more than 1,500 hours flying more than 25 aircraft.
NASA appointed them both as astronauts in 2000, and they became buddies when they worked together in the space shuttle program.
Behnken flew on two space shuttle missions, logging more than 708 hours in space with a sum of 37 hours of spacewalks. Hurley led two space shuttles, counting the very last one, spending a total of over 683 hours in space.
Since NASA’s final space shuttle flight, though, the agency has depended on Russia’s Soyuz system to ferry its space traveller to and from the International Space Station. But Russia has almost quadrupled its fees over a decade. A single round-trip seat now charges NASA about $US85 million.
A Crew Dragon seat is expected to price about $US55 million. (However, that doesn’t include the $US1.2 billion NASA spent on the new spacecraft’s development in expectation of replacing Soyuz.)
Behnken and Hurley’s groundwork for the first crewed flight involves rigorous training exercises and dry runs of launch day events.
In total, the two astronauts have teamed up for two decades. “Bob and I got quite close. It’s just like anything else you are drawn to certain people,” Hurley told The Atlantic. “We spent a good deal of time together, and I got to the point where I said, ‘Hey, maybe this guy isn’t so bad.'”
In 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry, taking the life of its seven-member crew, Hurley and Behnken were posted on the runway together.
“I’ve seen Doug’s behavior at my wedding ceremony, I’ve seen Doug’s behavior in an aeroplane, and we’ve worked together dealing with the outcome of the worst thing you can imagine happening in our career field. I can guess his actions. He can guess mine,” Behnken said.
Behnken, Hurley, and other Commercial Crew astronauts have counselled SpaceX as it develops the Crew Dragon’s inner workings, discussing the designs of switches and control screens.
Commercial Crew astronaut Suni Williams earlier said that she and other astronauts had notified SpaceX and Boeing that initial versions of their spaceships showed the crew too little on-screen information.
“Automation can help us, but then you do have to look out,” Williams said. “We talked to both partners about: How do I examine this? I have a timeline before me – how do I tell these things are taking place? Where do I check? Where do I look? What’s my authorizing cue?”
“We spend a couple of days every week somewhere in California or Florida, evaluating the final designs. We’re not the receivers of a super-formal training program – it’s sort of being developed as we go,” Behnken told The Atlantic.
Safety is the utmost priority, so Commercial Crew astronauts have practised clearing SpaceX’s launch pad in the improbable event of danger before liftoff. That emergency escape obliges the astronauts to load into baskets on a zipline-like wire. When they zip to the ground, an armoured vehicle drops in for them.
After that escape drill, Behnken said: “Each time today when we went down the crew access arm, I couldn’t help but think about what it will be like to belt into Dragon on launch day.”
The astronauts have also run through the process of being rescued from the Crew Dragon capsule after it splatters down in the ocean.
They have even done a dress preparation with the new SpaceX spacesuits.
“NASA has not done a flight-test program for a spaceship after the space shuttle. So you’re talking late 70s, early 80s is the last time we kind of did this as an agency,” Hurley said in a 2018 NASA video.
“Some of it is kind of re-learning those skills and those things that you need to ensure that you’re watching out for,” he added.
Both men have said they’re eagerly waiting to try out the new spacecraft and getting back up to the space station.
“When you get up there and look back at the Earth, I think there isn’t anyone who that hasn’t changed,” Behnken told The Atlantic. “It truly does change you, and confidently for the better.”
He added: “People ask us about commercialization of space, and I strongly believe that the more people we can get to go into space, the better off the planet’s going to be.”