CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – The two astronauts who will end a nine-year launch drought for NASA arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, exactly one week before their historic SpaceX flight.
It will be the first time that a private company, rather than a national government, has sent astronauts into orbit.
NASA test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken flew to Florida from their base in Houston aboard one of the space agency’s planes.
“This is an incredible time for NASA and the space program, which is launching American crews from Florida again and hopefully in about a week,” Hurley told reporters a few minutes after arriving.
Hurley was one of four astronauts who arrived at Kennedy on July 4, 2011 for the final space shuttle flight, “so it is incredibly humiliating to be here to start the next launch of the United States.”
“We see it as an opportunity but also a responsibility for the American people, for the SpaceX team, for all of NASA,” added Behnken.
The two are scheduled to take off on Wednesday afternoon from the top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket bound for the International Space Station. They will take off from the same pad where Atlantis closed the shuttle program in 2011, the last home launch of NASA astronauts.
Since then, the only way to access the space station for astronauts is to use Russian rockets launched from Kazakhstan.
Hurley and Behnken still don’t know how much time they will spend at the space station: between one and four months. Only one American is up there right now – astronaut Chris Cassidy – and could use one hand. Hurley said he received an email from Cassidy on Tuesday evening in which he wrote that he “can’t wait to see our nasty cups on board.”
The director of the center, former shuttle commander Robert Cabana and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine greeted the astronauts from the former Kennedy space shuttle runway.
“You really are a bright light for all of America right now,” Bridenstine told them.
The size of the host committee has been reduced significantly due to the coronavirus pandemic. There was no handshake for the astronauts, who did not wear masks but kept their distance on separate microphones. Cabana and Bridenstine wore masks except when addressing the crowd; the approximately 20 journalists stood more than 6 meters away.
In these difficult times, Bridenstine said, “This is a time when we can all watch and be inspired as to what the future holds. “
NASA’s commercial crew program has been in the making for years. Competitor Boeing is not expected to launch its first astronauts until next year.
As pioneers, Hurley and Behnken established new traditions before launch. They shared two at the request of Bridenstine on Wednesday.
Hurley, a former marine and fighter pilot, followed the military tradition and affixed a mission sticker to the SpaceX flight simulator in Houston on Tuesday after completing training. Behnken, an Air Force colonel, followed Russian custom and planted a tree. He received help at home from his wife, who is also an astronaut, and their 6-year-old son.
“My son will always have this lemon tree that he was part of the plantation,” said Behnken. “Hopefully it will cross Houston’s hot summer this year and also become a tradition for others. “