Calm under pressure: 2 NASA astronauts prepare to return glory of human spaceflight to America

Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken have more in common than history-making spaceflight

Returning human spaceflight to the U.S. is monumental for all involved, but the two astronauts who will be making the historic flight have trained for this moment for years.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Returning human spaceflight to the U.S. is monumental for all involved, but the two astronauts who will be making the historic flight have trained for this moment for years. And if anyone is up for the task, it’s NASA astronauts, whose long list of talents includes flying upside down, spacewalking and being able to handle the pressure from the public, press and the nation’s pride.

Ahead of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 launch, you would be hard-pressed not to hear about NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, or “Bob and Doug” as NASA leaders affectionately call them. The two veteran astronauts have a combined 1,400 of spaceflight hours between them and have been preparing to be the first to launch in a brand-new spacecraft for the past 5 years.

Both former military test pilots, Behnken described their upcoming flight as a “dream job” conducing a test mission aboard a new spacecraft, the Crew Dragon.

The two astronauts have more in common than their historic flight from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Behnken and Hurley were both selected as part of NASA astronaut class in 2000, but prior to joining the U.S. space agency, both logged thousands of hours in more than 25 different aircraft as test pilots.

Outside of being outstanding examples of the U.S. space program, both men are fathers to young sons and serving as examples of keeping a cool head when the world is in the middle of a pandemic and you’re training to fly a brand new spacecraft for the first time with everyone watching.

Demo-2 commander NASA Astronaut Doug Hurley

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NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, STS-135 pilot, prepares for a flight in a T-38 trainer on his way from Houston to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the final Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT) on Monday, June 20, 2011. (NASA Photo / Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool).

In the U.S. Marine Corps, Hurley, a New York native, was the first Marine pilot to fly the F/A‐18 E/F Super Hornet. As part of the Marine All Weather Fighter/Attack Squadron 225, he deployed three times to the Western Pacific.

Hurley retired from the Marine Corps 12 years into his NASA career and after serving for 24 years with the Marines. He also has a bachelor of science in civil engineering from Tulane University.

Hurley met his future wife, Karen Nyberg, while in astronaut training. Nyberg flew on both space shuttle Discovery and Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft totaling more than 180 days in space. During her second spaceflight, along with conducting all of her science and mission work, Nyberg quilted on the ISS and shared her experiences of being a mother to a young toddler while living on the ISS for six months.

Nyberg officially retired from NASA in March.

“I try every day to be the person and astronaut that you already are,” Hurley wrote on Twitter after his wife’s retirement. “Selfless, humble, amazingly talented. Always the mission and the team. I am eagerly looking forward to sharing your next adventure with you!”

The couple have one son, named Jack.

As an astronaut, Hurley was a pilot on STS-127 in 2009, taking part in the assembly of the International Space Station. He completed his second spaceflight in 2011, piloting Space shuttle Atlantis on the final mission of the space shuttle program.

“When you fly a shuttle flight you are just exhausted, you are glad to be home, you just want to see your family,” Hurley said of his last spaceflight. “From that standpoint, I had no expectation that I would have even flown again.”

Now nearly nine years later, Hurley will fly on the Crew Dragon spacecraft on its first mission with astronauts to the International Space Station.

Hurley’s fellow crew member on the final shuttle mission, former astronaut Chris Ferguson, will command SpaceX’s competitor Boeing’s commercial spacecraft Starliner when it launches on its first crewed mission to the ISS, possibly later this year.

On Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 flight, Hurley will serve as the spacecraft commander.

Demo-2 joint operations commander NASA astronaut Robert 'Bob’ Behnken

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Attired in his Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit, astronaut Robert L. Behnken, STS-123 mission specialist, is pictured in the Quest Airlock of the International Space Station prior to the start of the mission's fourth scheduled session of extravehicular activity (EVA) while Space Shuttle Endeavour is docked with the station on Aug. 1, 2013.

Behnken’s first assignment with the U.S. Air Force was at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida managing and developing new weapon systems. He later became an Air Force test pilot and served as the lead flight test engineer for the 4th F-22.

Behnken has a doctorate in mechanical engineering from California Institute of Technology and conducted his thesis research on software and hardware for flexible robotic manipulators.

Like Hurley, Behnken was also part of the 2000 NASA astronaut class, where he met his now wife NASA astronaut Megan McArthur.

McArthur has a Ph.D. in oceanography and served as chief scientists on underwater diving missions with Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She flew on one space shuttle mission, the fifth and final repair mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. Both halves of the astronaut couple flew on Hubble repair missions.

The couple have a 6-year-old son, Theo.

In interviews, Behnken has spoken about sharing his experience and excitement preparing for Demo-2 with his son.

“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.

He flew two missions on Space Shuttle Endeavour and spent more than 700 hours in space. On both his 2008 and 2011 spaceflights, Behnken operated the station’s robotic arm, Canadaarm2, and conducted a combined six spacewalks.

Behnken will serve as the joint operations commander for the Demo-2 mission.

After completing astronaut training, both Hurley and Behnken were assigned to KSC Operations Support working space shuttle missions which is why Hurley said coming back to the Cape is like coming home.

“Our first astronaut jobs were here at Kennedy helping to launch shuttles,” Hurley said a week before the Demo-2 launch. “It’s almost like a home away from home, its great to be back.”

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Since being selected to be the first astronauts to fly on new spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program the veterans of spaceflight have been training for the past five years for their upcoming test flight.

In 2018, NASA assigned Behnken and Hurley to fly on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The pair have trained extensively at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California and at NASA’s John Space Center to prepare for the Demo-2 test flight.

In this Thursday, March 19, 2020 photo made available by SpaceX, astronauts Doug Hurley, foreground, and Bob Behnken work in SpaceX's flight simulator at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., as SpaceX teams in Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center and the company's Mission Control in Hawthorne, Calif., along with NASA flight controllers in Mission Control Houston, run a full simulation of launch and docking of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. (SpaceX via AP) (Here is our public domain dedication.

A week ahead of the historic launch, Hurley said he was excited to put all that training toward testing Crew Dragon on its first spaceflight.

“It’s an outstanding flying machine,” Hurley said. “We are really excited to be in the spacecraft not the simulator next week."

After years of training and testing, both former test pilots are itching to fly America’s new gateway to the International Space Station.

As millions of people watch on from their homes online, on TV or in-person along Florida’s Space Coast, all eyes will be on Behnken and Hurley as they go to work on May 27. It just so happens their day job is flying a brand new spacecraft and returning the storied history of human spaceflight to the U.S.

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