In preparation for the first astronaut launch in 9 years from U.S. soil, NASA wants to help the public get to know the brave space explorers that will be onboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on its first flight with people on board.
As of Friday, the first crewed launch from U.S. soil since 2011 is slated for May 27.
It’s a lot to sum up but this launch has been years in the making, from NASA selecting SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft to carry American astronauts to the major milestones and accomplishments, as well as setbacks along the way.
Those key events have all led up to NASA being able to send its astronauts to the International Space Station without relying on the Russian Space Agency Rocosmos. The U.S. has paid Russia since 2011 to launch its astronauts to the ISS.
On May 27 NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will become the first passengers on Crew Dragon, launching from Kennedy Space Center. Both men are veteran astronauts with previously flights under the space shuttle program.
Hurley will be the spacecraft commander and Behnken is the joint operations commander for the SpaceX Demo-2 mission.
How long the two spend on the space station is still to be determined. According to NASA, the mission duration will be determined once the spacecraft docks at the station and based on the readiness of the next commercial crew launch. The spacecraft could stay at the station for up to 110 days, according to NASA.
Ahead of the launch, NASA made both astronauts available to answer questions about their mission.
Here are a few things we learned from both astronauts and their upcoming historic flight:
On launching from the Florida coast for the first time since 2011.
Both astronauts launched from Florida during the space shuttle program and said this time around it feels different for a few reasons but also there are similarities.
“I think it’s very similar in a lot of ways, I think you know your first shuttle flight, at least in my experience, was that you just don’t have any idea what to expect and you’ve worked so hard to get to that point and it’s exciting on so many levels,” Hurley said. “This is a little bit more measured in a lot of ways because one we’ve been to space before but we’ve also worked very, very long time in this collaboration with SpaceX to get to the launch pad.”
“When we launched on our first flight it was kind of routine to fly from the Florida coast, that was the normal thing,” Behnken said. “Now to get the chance to bring it back to the Florida coast and to have it be not our first mission I think we have a different perspective of the importance of coming to Florida launching again on an American rocket from the Florida coast and generations of people who maybe didn’t get a chance to see a space shuttle launch getting a chance again to see human spaceflight in our own backyard if you will, is pretty exciting to be a part of I think that’s the thing that’s most exciting for me.”
What are they most excited about?
Behnken started out the Q&A talking about his 6-year-old son, Theo and spoke about his excitement to share this mission with him.
“On my first flight I didn’t have a small child, I didn’t have a son and so I’m really excited to share the mission with him and have him have a chance to be old enough at 6 to see it and share it with me when I get home and while I’m on orbit,” Behnken said.
For Hurley, he is excited to fly the Crew Dragon spacecraft after watching it go through development and testing.
“We’re just excited to kind of put it through its paces when we get ready to go fly,” Hurley said. “It’s hard to put maybe into words one specific thing but I think just ... going through the mission profile and kind of putting a stamp on things to make sure it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do or what we expect it to do.”
What’s the toilet like on Crew Dragon? Something everyone can relate to, the astronauts were asked what the bathroom situation is like on the spacecraft.
“We’ll let you know how it works out, they have one ... we’ll try it out and we’ll let you know when we get back,” Hurley said.
Operating a space shuttle vs. Crew Dragon capsule
While some of the differences between the two spacecraft are obvious one is a capsule and the other is a winged-vehicle both astronauts have been training for months in the new spacecraft to prepare for any situation.
Hurley said overall the capsule is a safer design, with end-to-end abort capability from launch all the way up to orbit.
“Compared to shuttle where there were, what we call ‘black zones’ where there were scenarios where it didn’t really matter if you had the right combination of failures, you were likely not going to survive and abort,” Hurley said.
Behnken side the space shuttle was 10 times the mass of Crew Dragon meaning a smaller rocket, Falcon 9, can launch the spacecraft.
“Flying on a smaller rocket, really focused on the crew mission of transporting the crew versus what shuttle did which was both take the payload and the crew into orbit provides another level of safety that I think is a big factor for us as well,” Behnken said.
Both astronauts have also had to learn how to use the touchscreen controls on the spacecraft. On the space shuttle, astronauts had a shift stick like mechanism and physical buttons.
Hurley said about six years ago SpaceX decided to go with the touchscreen interface after considering different types of control mechanisms for the spacecraft. He said it was a challenge to learn the new interface but they worked through it.
“The differences is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting in input in with a touchscreen relative to what you would do with a stick because you know, when you’re flying an airplane for example if I push the stick forward it’s going to go down, I have to actually make a concerted effort to do that with a touchscreen if that makes sense so it’s it’s a little bit different way of doing it but the design, in general, has worked out very well,” Hurley said.