on July 7th, 2020

On the 30th of May 2020, after four years of preparation, astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley lifted off at 3:22 p.m. EDT in the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Launching from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the monumental flight marked the first time in history that NASA astronauts have launched from American soil in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station.

“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at Space X,” said Elon Musk, chief engineer at SpaceX. “You can look at this as the results of a hundred thousand people roughly when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen.”

Known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, the mission is described as an end-to-end test flight to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system. Acting as the first test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon with astronauts aboard, the mission will hopefully pave the way for the regulation of crew flights to the station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Credits: SpaceX

Meet Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley

The road to the launch of Demo-2 started over 20 years ago for chosen astronauts, Robert ‘Bob’ Behnken and Douglas ‘Doug’ Hurley. Both members of the NASA Astronaut class of 2000, Bob and Doug were already longstanding friends and lived almost parallel lives, making for the perfect team to break NASA’s nine-year hiatus of launching astronauts from US soil since the retirement of the last space shuttle in 2011.

Both men gained undergraduate degrees in engineering during their formative years. Bob earned two bachelor's degrees in physics and mechanical engineering in 1988 and 1992, a master's degree in mechanical engineering in 1993 and a doctorate in mechanical engineering in 1997. Doug graduated with a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering in 1988.

Despite going to different training schools, Doug and Bob went on to both be subsequently trained as military test pilots and would achieve the rank of colonel - Hurley in the Marine Corps, Behnken in the Air Force. This has been known as a standard background for Nasa’s astronauts since the days of their first intakes.

Together, the men had over 7,000 hours of flight experience in 25 different types of aircraft when they were selected to the same NASA astronaut class in July 2000. Over the next twenty years, Bob and Doug would continue to train side by side and gradually build the bond that NASA would trust with the responsibility of manning Demo-2.

Despite the hype surrounding Elon Musk's historic launch, the two NASA astronauts have largely hidden away from the spotlight. Adding to their list of similarities, Bob and Doug are also both married to fellow astronauts with each a young son. They even share the same taste in music. 

“I wanted to make sure everyone at SpaceX understood and knew Bob and Doug as astronauts and test pilots but also as dads and husbands,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer. “I wanted to bring some humanity to this very deeply technical effort as well.”

Lifting off from Launch Pad 39A, the two Astronauts accelerated to approximately 27,000 km/h before Crew Dragon followed its intercept course with the International Space Station. Bob and Doug were welcomed aboard the station after 19 hours of flight time, joining the Expedition 63 crew and becoming the first astronauts in history to ride a commercial craft into orbit.

The Demo-2 mission will be the final major step before NASA's Commercial Crew program certifies Crew Dragon for operation missions to the space station, laying the groundwork for future exploration of the Moon and Mars. 

However, despite attention obviously being on the successful launch of the Demo-2, the reason for the SpaceX mission should not be forgotten. The two astronauts are there ultimately in the service of science and international research. Bob and Doug will take part in installing a new hardware platform called Bartolomeo, designed by the European Space Agency and Airbus to enable the ISS to host extra science experiments from teams all over the world. 

“It was incredible,” NASA astronaut Bob Behnken said of the launch, moments after the spacecraft reached orbit. “Appreciate all the hard work and thanks for the great ride to space.”

In addition to the launch, SpaceX also successfully landed the Falcon 9 rocket booster. The booster is the large lower portion of the rocket, which re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed on the company’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has landed its Falcon 9 rocket boosters 45 times.     

“This just the beginning; it’s only going to get better,” Bob Cabana, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, said before the launch.

What’s next?

The future of space travel is tipped to be exciting. Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of colonizing Mars. Before that, however, SpaceX is still contracted to assist NASA with five more crewed missions to the International Space Station.

The SpaceX and NASA partnership on the 30th of May taught us all something about rocket launches: No matter how many times a launch is performed, there is always an edge of excitement. Sparking the interest and curiosity of millions around the world, the human journey into space is one that never ceases to amaze.  

A new era of space flight seems to be upon us, and that means that more engineers will be required to continue the development of one of the most exciting engineering sectors ever created. SpaceX seems to be leading the charge on space engineering but what else can we begin to expect?

With the continued progress of programs such as SpaceX and the upcoming opportunities being offered by NASA, there will be plenty of milestones made in the coming years. Each little discovery and invention will pave the way to a more space-filled future.

Find out more about how you could make your mark with an engineering program from the Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT).

Works Cited

“NASA and SpaceX: Journey to the Future: NASA and SpaceX: Journey to the Future.” Discovery, go.discovery.com/tv-shows/nasa-and-spacex-journey-to-the-future/full-episodes/nasa-and-spacex-journey-to-the-future.

“Updates.” SpaceX, www.spacex.com/updates/crew-demo-2-mission-update-5-30-2020/.

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