- NASA has chosen astronaut Megan McArthur to pilot SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship to the International Space Station next spring.
- McArthur’s husband, Bob Behnken, returned to Earth in the spaceship on Sunday.
- Behnken’s mission has shown that the Crew Dragon can successfully ferry astronauts to and from the space station, thereby restoring NASA’s human spaceflight program.
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NASA astronaut Megan McArthur watched her husband climb back onto SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship from the space station, buckle into his seat, and rocket through Earth’s atmosphere this weekend. Bob Behnken and his crewmate, Doug Hurley, returned safely on Sunday, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico in a successful culmination of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission.
Come spring, McArthur is slated to pilot the same spaceship. NASA chose her for the Crew Dragon’s second mission in a series of at least six round-trips to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
Behnken and Hurley had lived and worked on the ISS since the Crew Dragon docked to the station on May 31. They conducted science experiments, maintenance, and spacewalks. Their round trip was the Crew Dragon’s first crewed flight – the first time humans had ever flown in a commercial spacecraft.
On Sunday, the Crew Dragon survived a a blistering 3,500-degree-Fahrenheit return through Earth’s atmosphere, then a high-stakes parachute deployment, to safely splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. Recovery boats helped Behnken and Hurley out of the capsule, and helicopters carried them to land.
“This was an incredibly smooth mission,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said after the splashdown.
The success paves the way for NASA to start routinely ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS using the Crew Dragon. The next crew is expected to launch in late September on a mission called Crew-1. Then McArthur will follow with three other astronauts – Crew-2 – next year.
“What we did for Bob, I think we can do an even better job for Megan,” Shotwell said on Sunday. “I was really excited to have her named the pilot for the Crew-2 mission.”
Meet the Crew-1 and Crew-2 astronauts
The success of the Demo-2 mission has restored the US’s human spaceflight capabilities for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. Crucially, the new SpaceX launch service should also free NASA from its increasingly expensive reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets.
The first of the Crew Dragon ferry missions – Behnken and Hurley’s mission is considered a demo – will carry four astronauts to the ISS: Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, Soichi Noguchi, and Shannon Walker.
“It did not seem like this was the first NASA SpaceX mission with astronauts on board,” Hopkins said in a press briefing following the astronauts’ splashdown. “It seemed to go extremely smoothly.”
NASA announced the crew for the mission after that on Tuesday. McArthur will serve as the pilot on the flight – her first trip to the space station.
“We will make sure that that vehicle is as good or better than the vehicle that that Bob flew in today,” Shotwell said.
McArthur previously flew in the space shuttle Atlantis on a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. McArthur holds degrees in aerospace engineering and oceanography.
The other three crew members are also experienced astronauts. Shane Kimbrough has flown to the ISS twice – once aboard the space shuttle Endeavour and once aboard a Soyuz rocket. In total, the retired Army colonel has spent 189 days in space and conducted six spacewalks.
Two of the Crew-2 astronauts – Akihiko Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet – are from NASA’s international partners. A main goal of NASA’s partnership with SpaceX is to give other countries’ space agencies a viable alternative to Soyuz rockets as well.
Hoshide, of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), has flown aboard a space shuttle and two Soyuz rockets. Pesquet, an astronaut from the European Space Agency (ESA), spent 196 days in space following a Soyuz launch.
“I am thrilled to be the first European to fly on the new generation of US crewed spacecraft,” Pesquet said in a press release. “It will be extra interesting for me to compare with my first flight as a Soyuz pilot, and to bring this experience to the team.”
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on July 28, 2020.