- In May, SpaceX launched its first astronauts to orbit in its new Crew Dragon spaceship: NASA’s Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
- On Sunday, the astronauts landed safely after spending two months at the International Space Station.
- Both men are military test pilots, engineers, and members of the same NASA astronaut class. Each flew on two space shuttle missions, married a fellow astronaut, and has a son.
- SpaceX has described Behnken and Hurley as “badass space dads,” while fellow astronauts say the two men are deceptively intelligent.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The way NASA’s astronaut office picks a crew from its esteemed corps is something of a mystery.
Each man graduated from the same crop of astronaut candidates in 2000. Each is an engineer and flew military aircraft. Each has flown to space three times aboard a space shuttle. Each married a fellow astronaut who has journeyed to space and fathered a son with her. Each spent years working with SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, to perfect the commercial spaceship they successfully rode to orbit.
And both shared the aspiration of every test pilot turned astronaut: the freak opportunity to fly a brand-new bird. They named SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour.
“If you gave us one thing that we could have put on our list of dream jobs that we would have gotten to have someday, it would have been to be aboard a new spacecraft and conduct a test mission,” Behnken told reporters on May 20, before SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched him and Hurley into orbit.
After that launch, Behnken and Hurley docked to the International Space Station (ISS), where they spent 63 days living and working. Then on Sunday, the men made a fiery, risky descent to Earth, culminating in a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Thanks for doing the most difficult part and the most important part of human spaceflight: sending us into orbit and bringing us home safely,” Behnken said shortly before climbing out of the spaceship. “Thank you again for the good ship Endeavour.”
A high-stakes resurrection, 9 years in the making
Prior to launching and landing Behnken and Hurley, SpaceX had flown 85 orbital-class Falcon 9 rockets, but no people.
NASA, meanwhile, flew its last space shuttle in July 2011. Since then, the agency had been forced to rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to get its astronauts into space – a monopolistic arrangement that cost NASA and put its access to the ISS at risk.
Behnken and Hurley’s SpaceX mission, called Demo-2, was the result of a roughly $US8 billion, 10-year public-private effort called the Commercial Crew Program. Boeing is one competitor in the program (though it saw major issues with its first uncrewed test flight), and SpaceX the other. NASA awarded SpaceX about $US2.7 billion of that sum to develop, build, and test Crew Dragon, as well as fly it on seven missions.
The joining of forces enabled NASA to groom SpaceX into a reliable commercial spaceflight provider that can sell the agency tickets to orbit for its astronauts. SpaceX, for its part, now has a human-rated spacecraft that will permit it to break open a new era of commercial spaceflight.
“This is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again, and that is launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said in May ahead of the launch. “We’re transforming how we do spaceflight in general.”
Essential to that transformation are the two people proving the gambit actually works.
SpaceX: They’re ‘badass’ pilots, astronauts, and ‘space dads’
Hurley, 53, grew up in New York near the Pennsylvania border, graduated at the top of his class in high school, and chased a civil engineering degree from Tulane University. By joining the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, he eventually would up as a test pilot in the Marine Corps with the call sign “Chunky” – then later became a member of NASA’s year 2000 astronaut class.
Behnken, a 49-year-old Missouri native, followed a similar path. He pursued a mechanical-engineering degree from Washington University in St. Louis, later picking up a master’s and a doctorate in the topic from Caltech. Amid that academic work, he joined the US Air Force’s ROTC program, which led him to become a test pilot and also a member of the same class of NASA astronaut candidates.
The men befriended each other in NASA’s program and each flew two space-shuttle missions. Hurley’s last mission, aboard space shuttle Atlantis in July 2011, was the final flight of that program.
Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who has worked at SpaceX and now teaches astronautics at the University of Southern California, says he knows both men well. He even shared the same doctoral adviser with Behnken and went trekking in nature with him.
“Doug likes to play a dumb pilot, but he’s actually a really smart guy,” Reisman told Business Insider. “And Bob’s nickname is ‘Dr. Bob.'”
Reisman described Behnken as very even-keeled and quiet, someone who “tries not to let his mouth get out in front of him.”
Reisman shared a story about being in a SpaceX meeting with Behnken in which some employees began to talk to him “like a dumb pilot” about vehicle-control theory – which the astronaut studied for his Ph.D.
“I’m sitting there laughing my my arse off because I know that he knows more about this stuff than they do,” Reisman said.
In 2015, NASA picked Behnken and Hurley, along with two other astronauts, as part of a “Commercial Crew Cadre” to work with SpaceX and Boeing on new commercial spaceships. That fast-tracked them for spots on Crew Dragon.
During a press briefing on May 1, Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, described both men as “badass” pilots, astronauts, and “space dads.”
When each astronaut was later asked what makes the other a badass, Behnken said Hurley “is ready for anything all the time” and “always prepared.”
“When you’re going to fly into space on a test mission, you couldn’t ask for a better person or a better type of individual to be there with you,” Behnken said. “I’m just thankful that, doing something like this, I’m doing it with with Doug Hurley.”
Hurley, for his part, praised Behnken’s wit.
“There is no stone unturned, there’s no way that he doesn’t have every potential eventuality already thought about five times ahead of almost anybody else,” Hurley said. “There’s no question I can ask him that he doesn’t already have probably the best answer for.”
Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut who flew to space four times, said the reputations of Behnken and Hurley precede them.
“I would certainly fly with them, either one of them or both of them, in a moment,” Chiao told Business Insider.
‘When you’re watching, you’re just a spectator’
Behnken and Hurley found more as part of NASA’s 2000 astronaut class than space-shuttle flights: They also met their wives.
Last month, NASA selected McArthur to pilot Crew Dragon’s second official mission to the ISS – the most recent mission was considered a demo – called Crew-2, next spring. She previously flew in the space shuttle Atlantis.
In an interview with The Washington Post, McArthur expounded on the difficulty of seeing Behnken lift off.
“One of the hardest things to do is watch the person that you love launch into space,” she said. “It’s much harder than actually doing it yourself when you’re in the rocket. You have the training. You’re prepared for the mission. When you’re watching, you’re just a spectator. And no matter what happens, there’s nothing you can do to contribute to the situation.”
Still, having a spouse who understands what it takes to go to space helps when parenting young kids through the experience
Behnken said delays in the Commercial Crew Program – the first launch was slated for 2017 – worked to their advantage in the parenting department.
“We’ve had a lot of the conversations over the years rather than having to have them all in the last couple of weeks,” he told Business Insider. “It’s kind of become more routine, if you will, in terms of expectation that I would eventually be flying on a SpaceX vehicle.”
Before the astronauts left the ISS, Behnken’s son reminded him in a wakeup call ahead of the return trip that Theo had been promised a puppy.
‘That’s how we like it to be’
Musk said ahead of the Demo-2 mission that reentry and landing were the most concerning phases for him. The Crew Dragon’s heat shield had to protect the astronauts from temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit while travelling at speeds up to 25 times the speed of sound.
After the vehicle splashed into the Gulf of Mexico, Musk flew out to meet the astronauts near NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.
“I think my entire adrenaline just dumped,” Musk told a small crowd over a microphone. “I’m not very religious, but I prayed for this one.”
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on May 27, 2020.
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