NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are about to embark on the biggest spaceflight event of the decade: the first launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. For years, they’ve anticipated this moment, picturing throngs of people lined up on Florida’s beaches to watch them ascend into the sky.
“Everyone is like, ‘When is it going to be? Am I going to get invited?’” Hurley told The Verge last year of the texts he received from eager friends and family. “It’s fun ... being able to have a lot more people come and enjoy and see a launch in Florida than they would be able to in Kazakhstan.”
Now, their launch will likely look very different, due to the self-isolation practices put in place amid COVID-19 pandemic. That electric atmosphere they expected will mostly be absent for this monumental flight as NASA has urged spectators to watch the launch from home — and it’s what the two astronauts want, too.
“It certainly is a disappointing aspect of all this pandemic is the fact that we won’t have, you know, the luxury of our family and friends being there at Kennedy [Space Center in Florida] to watch the launch. But it’s obviously the right thing to do in the current environment,” Hurley said during a press conference this month.
“IT CERTAINLY IS A DISAPPOINTING ASPECT OF ALL THIS PANDEMIC IS THE FACT THAT WE WON’T HAVE, YOU KNOW, THE LUXURY OF OUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS BEING THERE.”
Even though the experience will be different, Hurley and Behnken, both longtime colleagues and friends, are still set to make history together when they board the Crew Dragon on May 27th. They’ll be the first passengers that SpaceX has ever launched into space, and they’ll also be the first people to launch to orbit from the United States since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. All of NASA’s astronauts have had to fly on Russian rockets out of Kazakhstan for nearly the last decade. But thanks to a partnership with NASA, SpaceX is set to start launching the agency’s astronauts from Florida once again with the Crew Dragon, beginning with Behnken and Hurley.
This afternoon, Behnken and Hurley will touch down on the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, a week before they board the Crew Dragon and blast off to the International Space Station. The duo has been preparing for this moment since NASA assigned them to this mission in 2018. To train, they’ve been traveling back and forth from their home bases in Houston near NASA’s Johnson Space Center to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Both have flown on the Space Shuttle twice before, and together they have spent nearly 1,400 hours in space.
“Training for a vehicle has its similarities, whether it’s an airplane, a car. Obviously, it’s a little easier to drive a car than maybe a spaceship,” Behnken told The Verge last year. “But I mean, you’re learning the systems, you’re learning how to interact with the vehicle, and then you’re also learning to deal with malfunctions if they occur. You’re learning how to live with that vehicle in space.”
The difference is that, unlike the government-made Shuttle, this is a mostly private spacecraft. And that’s meant adjusting to a new way of doing things.