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Caltech Alum, Astronaut Bob Behnken Blasts Off on Historic SpaceX Launch to ISS

Published on Saturday, May 30, 2020 | 12:05 pm
The SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasts off (left) and NASA astronaut and Caltech alumnus Robert Behnken (Credit: NASA and SpaceX/Ashish Sharma)

Hawthorne-based SpaceX Saturday launched two astronauts to the International Space Station in the first such launch from American soil in nearly a decade and the first by a private company.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were aboard the Crew Dragon capsule, which was propelled into orbit by one of SpaceX’s signature Falcon 9 rockets.

Behnken, who earned his Caltech degrees in mechanical engineering, also served as chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office from 2012 to 2015.

The launch of the Crew Dragon capsule was originally planned for Wednesday, but bad weather in the flight path above Cape Canaveral in Florida caused the mission to be scrubbed just 15 minutes before takeoff.

Weather conditions were better for Saturday’s launch, which was set for 12:22 p.m. California time and lifted of at 12:23 p.m.

President Donald Trump was again on hand at Cape Canaveral. He and Vice President Mike Pence were both in Florida for Wednesday’s attempt, only to see the mission get delayed.

The launch was the first astronaut mission from American soil since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011. Traveling to the ISS has been done aboard Russian Soyuz rockets launched from Kazakhstan.

Behnken and Hurley are both veteran NASA astronauts. Behnken, who has master’s and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Caltech, is an Air Force colonel who served as a mission specialist on two space shuttle missions. Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel, was a pilot on two space shuttle missions.

Earlier this week, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine voiced excitement for the return of American space flight — and its ability to unite a nation that was plunged into economic turmoil by the coronavirus pandemic, and witnessed violent uprisings following the death of a black man during an attempted arrest by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

“This is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again, and that is launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine said Tuesday.

He added, “This space program that we have in this country unites people, period. It always has. We look at the most divisive times in American history. We think about the Vietnam War, the 1960s, not just the war, but the protests. We think about the civil rights abuses and the civil rights protests. The very divisive, challenging times. And here we are all these years later in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and we have this moment in time where we can unite people again.”

The flight is technically just a demonstration mission, showing the capabilities of the SpaceX Crew Dragon.

SpaceX will again attempt to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that lifts the spaceship into orbit by landing it on a barge — dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You” — floating in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has nearly perfected such recoveries in an effort to reduce costs of future missions.

The Crew Dragon with its two occupants will orbit the Earth, with Hurley and Behnken testing flight capabilities of the spaceship, although it is designed to essentially fly itself and autonomously dock with the space station.

It still has not been determined how long the Crew Dragon — and Hurley and Behnken — will remain on the space station before returning to Earth.

SpaceX conducted an unmanned test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule in March 2019, sending the spacecraft to the International Space Station with an array of cargo and a mannequin playfully named Ripley, after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” film franchise.

The company and its founder, Elon Musk, have dubbed the space station trips a stepping stone for bolder plans, most notably returning to the Moon and ultimately flying crewed missions to Mars.

Ahead of Wednesday’s launch attempt, Musk expressed a slight bit of nervousness about the flight. But he said he was surprised his aerospace company has come so far.

“This is a dream come true, I think for me and everyone at SpaceX,” he said. “This is not something that I ever thought would actually happen. When starting SpaceX in 2002, I really did not think this day would occur. I expected a 90% chance we’d fail to even get to lower-Earth orbit with a small rocket. So if somebody told me in 2002 that I’d be standing here with the NASA administrator, meeting the astronauts and a spacecraft on (launch) pad 39A, the best pad in the world, it’s an honor to be there, I would have thought, man, … no way.”

NASA Deputy Administrator James Morhard said this week the return of American flight capabilities to the space station is critical to future research.

“Why are we here? We’re here to expand the human condition for all mankind,” he said. “… Right now we’ve got one astronaut on the space station, and when we get the full complement back, we’re going to increase our research up there by 300% and that’s about helping others. That’s why we exist.”

CNS-05-30-2020 12:28

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