- Megan McArthur is about to pilot the SpaceX spaceship that her husband, Bob Behnken, flew last year.
- Together, the married astronauts are raising a son, Theo, and flying commercial missions for NASA.
- Their last year has involved astronaut training, rocket launches, and calls to the space station.
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Last spring, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Megan McArthur took their son to see SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch cargo to the International Space Station. They wanted him to feel the rumble of the rocket’s engines, hear its roar, and follow it out of view – before either of them were on board.
“He could watch a big rocket launch with both mom and dad there, and we could talk to him about it,” McArthur recently told reporters in a call.
Soon thereafter, Theo, who was 6 years old at the time, waved goodbye to his dad, and Behnken climbed into SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship to pilot the world’s first crewed commercial spacecraft. That demonstration mission carried Behnken and his crewmate, astronaut Doug Hurley, to the ISS in May, where they stayed for nine weeks.
-Bob Behnken (@AstroBehnken) May 12, 2020
Now, McArthur is preparing to pilot that same spaceship on a mission called Crew-2 – SpaceX’s second routine astronaut flight – which is set to launch on Friday. It’s literally the same capsule, refurbished. Behnken and Hurley named it Endeavour, after the last Space Shuttle.
Getting assigned to the Endeavour was “a neat surprise, and kind of a fun twist on the whole thing,” McArthur said. “I’m going to launch in the same seat. So that is kind of a fun thing that we can share, you know, I can tease him and say, ‘Hey, Can you hand over the keys? I’m ready now to go.'”
McArthur’s been to space once before, to help repair the Hubble Space Telescope, but has never set foot on the space station. She said she’s “super excited” for the mission.
Still, for Theo, who turns 7 this month, it’s not easy having astronaut parents.
“At first he was trepidatious about it, and said, ‘Hey I don’t want you to launch on a rocket,'” Behnken recently told People. “But after he saw one, he was good with me going and then mommy going, with the stipulation that he gets to go after mom. I don’t know if we can make that happen for him, but that’s his plan at least.”
In the shorter term, being apart is the biggest challenge, McArthur said.
“Like any child facing a parent being gone for six months, he’s not super excited about it,” she said.
When your spouse is 402km above Earth
When it came time for Behnken to say goodbye before his launch, NASA TV microphones picked him up telling Theo: “Be good for mom. Make her life easy.”
But watching your spouse rocket to orbit isn’t easy, according to McArthur.
“One of the hardest things to do is watch the person that you love launch into space,” she told The Washington Post before the liftoff. “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.”
To make matters more difficult, it wasn’t yet clear at the time how long Behnken and Hurley would stay on the space station. They had up to three months in orbit, but they could have left earlier. It depended on NASA’s schedule, and on how well the Crew Dragon’s solar panels held up in space.
“Probably one of the bigger challenges was, well, when is dad coming home?” McArthur said.
While Behnken was in space, McArthur and Theo could often turn on NASA TV and see him floating around on the ISS. They called him every day from their Houston home, which meant coordinating across time zones. Behnken often wanted to talk before he went to bed, which was when the school day was ending.
“I’ve just got home, I’m putting down the bags, I got to make dinner,” McArthur said. “So finding that right time where you can really engage with one another and connect is part of the challenge.”
They also tried to video chat, but learned that Theo couldn’t stay engaged for an entire hour of that. So for McArthur’s mission, she said, they’ll keep the video visits to 15 or 20 minutes.
McArthur began to train for her own mission while Behnken was still in space. She relied heavily on a babysitter. Then finally, her husband splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico three months after he left the planet. That’s when McArthur really had to start traveling for her own training.
“We gave him about two weeks to get his land legs back, and then I was off,” she said of her husband.
By then, the family was well-acquainted with the training rhythm. Behnken had been involved in the Commercial Crew Program – through which NASA funded the development of SpaceX’s astronaut-launch system – for five years before his mission. The final couple years of that involved intensive training, and he spent several days each week in California.
Then for the last eight months, it’s been mom’s turn to follow a similar schedule. Her time on the ISS will be even longer than Behnken’s.
“Megan being gone for six months will be kind of a unique experience for me. We haven’t been apart for that long a period of a time,” Behnken told People.
The moon may not be in the cards for Behnken or McArthur
Behnken and McArthur met at NASA in 2000, when they were both training in that year’s astronaut class. They married eight years later, just before McArthur took her first trip to space.
“I figured it was a pretty good screening program. You got a full background check,” McArthur told People.
Now, the astronaut couple is paving the way for a new era of human space exploration. Commercial astronaut launches to the space station will likely become common. Both NASA and SpaceX want to return astronauts to the moon and, eventually, send humans to Mars.
“I would love to go to the moon or Mars,” McArthur told Insider. But she added, “I think probably this mission will be my last mission. You know, our family has been through a development program already. And I think that the right thing for our family is for me to complete this mission and move on.”
Another member of the family may take up the mantle eventually, though.
“My son has said that he’s going to go to the moon,” McArthur said. “I’ve asked him, you know, would you mind bringing mom with you? And he said sure.”
This story has been updated. It was originally published on April 18, 2021.