NASA Astronauts Arrive at the International Space Station on SpaceX Spacecraft

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center here Saturday afternoon, and then whizzing around the Earth at speeds that eventually hit 17,500 mph, the SpaceX spacecraft carrying two NASA astronauts docked with the International Space Station Sunday morning, completing the first leg of a historic journey.

The mission was the first time NASA astronauts had launched from United States soil since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, and it marked the first time a private company had flown astronauts to orbit.

It was also a test flight designed to see how the spacecraft, which had never flown humans before, performed. So far, it seems the answer is very well, but the astronauts still need to return home safely after their tour on the station ends sometime in the coming months.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the pair chosen for the mission because of their experience and expertise flying new vehicles, reported that the spacecraft was performing well.

“Dragon’s a slick vehicle,” Behnken said.

“We couldn’t be happier about the performance,” Hurley said.

With their trip to the space station completed, the pair can claim victory in an epic game of capture the flag, taking possession of the American flag that was brought to the station on the last shuttle flight, and was waiting to return to Earth by the first crew to reach the station from U.S. soil.

For NASA, the flight was the culmination of a journey that began years ago, when the Space Shuttle program ended with no way for the space agency to send people into space. In the nine years since, NASA paid Russia as much as $90 million a seat to fly its astronauts to the space station.

Ultimately, NASA decided to outsource the job of space launches to the private sector, awarding contracts to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014, worth a combined $6.8 billion. Initially, Boeing, the industry stalwart that had been NASA’s partner for generations, was considered the favorite. But its Starliner spacecraft encountered significant problems during a test mission without crews late last year and had to cut that flight short.

That left SpaceX, which also had encountered problems in developing its spacecraft, in the lead to be first to launch with astronauts on board.

Everything about this first crewed SpaceX mission appears to have been picture-perfect, from its on-time lieftoff at 3:22 p.m. Saturday to its rendezvous with the space station at 10:16 a.m. Eastern time Sunday. The astronauts floated into the space station at 1:22 p.m., 22 hours after they’d left Florida.

Hurley and Behnken, both of whom are married to fellow astronauts, seemed loose and relaxed during the journey, showing off the stuffed animals they had brought with them to show to their kids. Behnken did a weightless flip for the camera, and they carried on the tradition of naming their spacecraft, announcing they had dubbed their Dragon capsule “Endeavour” — the same name as the space shuttle they had both flown aboard.

On Sunday morning the crew continued another longstanding NASA tradition, choosing to wake up to music. The crew of Gemini 6 started the tradition in 1965, waking up to “Hello Dolly” by Jack Jones, according to a history complied by NASA historian Colin Fries.

The use of music as an alarm clock continued during the Apollo program “when astronauts returning from the Moon were serenaded by their colleagues in mission control with lyrics from popular songs that seemed appropriate to the occasion,” Fries wrote.

On the final flight of the Space Shuttle, the crew chose an eclectic mix from Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon,” and “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles.

 

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Behnken and Hurley went in a different direction for their wake-up call Sunday. At 4:45 a.m., the controllers on the ground played Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan,” a slow, almost mystical tune that mixes guitar and bongos and is about “taking a spaceship out to the stars,” a band member once said.

During a live broadcast from the spacecraft, Hurley said the pair had been able to get some rest before the wake-up call.

“We ended up sleeping just like we are right now, in our chairs, which was actually a pretty comfortable night’s sleep,” he said.

By the time they woke up, the spacecraft was already bearing down on the space station, having performed a series of “burns” or engine thruster firings that raised its orbit and brought them closer to the orbiting laboratory.

The Dragon spacecraft flies autonomously, but the astronauts can take over the controls at any time, and they did so twice to check how the systems performed. During the broadcast from the capsule, Hurley noted that they were the first astronauts to control a spacecraft using a touchscreen.

“So we got that going for us,” he said.

Unlike the violent force of liftoff, docking is a delicate and carefully choreographed bit of orbital ballet, requiring patience and a finesse. Inside NASA’s mission control in Houston, and SpaceX’s headquarters outside of Los Angeles, controllers called through a series of maneuvers that seemed to go off without a hitch, one by one.

And then, at 10:16 a.m. Endeavour’s slow, smooth glide to the station ended with a kiss as the station flew over China and Mongolia.

“We have docking,” NASA’s Dan Huot said during a broadcast of the event.

It took a few hours for the crews to ensure that the pressure was equalized between the space station and the Endeavour spacecraft. But then the hatch was opened and after a few more minutes, the pair floated into the station. Behnken came first, Superman style, smile beaming, into the arms of fellow astronaut Chris Cassidy, who has been aboard the station since April.

Hurley came next. And the three astronauts and friends embraced, along with two Russian cosmonauts, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

Speaking during a welcome-aboard ceremony on the station, Hurley said “it’s great to get the United States back in the crewed launch business, and we’re just really glad to be on board this magnificent complex.”

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine praised the pair, saying the agency is “so proud of everything you have done for our country, and in fact to inspire the world.”

The mission, Bridenstine said, foreshadows a sea change in the way NASA will do business in space. Instead of owning and operating the spacecraft itself, Bridenstine said, the future of the agency will lie with partnering with the growing commercial space sector, as it has with SpaceX.

“This was an amazing moment,” he said. “And it represents a transition in how we do spaceflight from the United States of America.”

The launch was initially scheduled for Wednesday, but was scrubbed because of weather. The delay meant Hurley and Behnken missed “Saturday housecleaning day,” Cassidy joked.

Not to worry, he said, promising to put his new crewmates to work: “We’ll catch up next weekend.”

It could be months before the NASA astronauts who flew the Endeavour Crew Dragon capsule return to Earth from the International Space Station. Or it could be as soon as the end of next month.

NASA officials haven’t decided how long Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will remain in space. In a May 1 mission briefing, agency leaders said they could spend as many as four months aboard the ISS or as few as five weeks.

It all depends on the shape of the Endeavour capsule and when SpaceX and NASA officials feel it is again safe to fly. Hurley and Behnken’s flight is a demonstration mission, officially called Demo-2, to test the spaceworthiness of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon and certify them for future crewed launches. With the demo launch complete, the two astronauts’ main goal is to evaluate their spacecraft and report how well it weathered the flight and docking.

Space officials also want to make progress on SpaceX’s Crew-1 capsule, the next Dragon capsule in line for launch.

“Really the decision point is, ‘Hey, is Dragon healthy? Is the vehicle performing well, the Dragon that’s on orbit?’” NASA Commercial Crew Program deputy director Steve Stich said at the briefing, via Space.com. “And then we’ll be looking ahead to that next mission, the Crew-1 flight, and looking at the vehicle readiness and trying to determine what’s the smart thing to do relative to the mission duration.”

Astronauts welcomed aboard the space station in emotional ceremony
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were welcomed aboard the station in an emotional ceremony Sunday afternoon after a nearly 19-hour journey that began when their Falcon 9 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center the day before.

It was the first flight of NASA astronauts from United States soil since the space shuttle was retired nearly a decade ago.

Speaking during a welcome-aboard ceremony on the station, Hurley said, “it’s great to get the United States back in the crewed launch business, and we’re just really glad to be on board this magnificent complex.”

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine praised the pair, saying the agency is “so proud of everything you have done for our country, and in fact to inspire the world.”

The mission, he said, foreshadows a sea change in the way NASA will do business in space. Instead of owning and operating the spacecraft itself, Bridensitne said the future of the agency lay with partnering with the growing commercial space sector, as it has with SpaceX.

“This was an amazing moment,” Bridenstine said. “And it represents a transition in how we do spaceflight from the United States of America.”

The launch initially was scheduled for Wednesday but scrubbed because of weather. The delay meant Hurley and Behnken missed “Saturday housecleaning day,” said astronaut Chris Cassidy, who has been on the station since April.

Not to worry, he said, promising to put his new cremates to work: “We’ll catch up next weekend.”

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are now aboard the International Space Station.

The pair opened the hatch of their SpaceX Dragon capsule at 1:02 p.m. Eastern time and floated into the station at 1:22 p.m. They were greeted by fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, who has been on the station since April, and two Russian cosmonauts.

The hatch opening completes the last major milestone of the launch that began Saturday, when the SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The spacecraft docked with the station at 10:16 a.m. and the crews worked to equalize the pressure between the spacecraft and the station before opening the hatch.

 

What living in space is really like

Chris Cassidy, who is about to greet fellow NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on the International Space Station, is no stranger to space flight.

He’s a former head of the astronaut office and on his third spaceflight. He knows the particular curiosities inherent in living in a weightless environment.

As he told The Post last year, in space astronauts use the tops of their feet more often than the bottoms. That’s because they are constantly hooking their feet under rails, to help keep them in place.

Calluses come off the bottoms of feet and grow on the top.

“After about a month or so all the skin comes off like a snake shedding its skin,” he said. “I remember taking my sock off one day about a month or two into the mission, and it was like an explosion of dead skin floating around me. Then I realized my feet were as soft as a baby’s bottom.”

He spoke to The Post as part of a project in which Post reporters interviewed 50 astronauts about what living in space is really like.

 

Dear astronauts, please pick up your trash

The first order of business for astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley before boarding the International Space Station: throw away your trash. Unless, they’re hungry. They’re allowed to eat first.

As Behnken and Hurley prepare to climb out of their Endeavour capsule for the first time in nearly a day, their itinerary for the opening hours in their new floating apartment is pretty stacked. It includes cleaning up after themselves.

“Please collect all your food and water bottle trash,” SpaceX mission controller Anna Menon told them.

Trash is a bit of an issue on the ISS. Astronaut Scott Kelly described the odor on board as a mixture of antiseptic and garbage. Part of the crew’s daily duties are a thorough vacuuming.

Astrobiologist Kasthuri Venkateswaran studied the contents of the station’s HEPA air filters and bags of vacuum dust in 2015 to see what kind of dirt and germs actually make their way up.

 

First, a lot of skin cells.

“After about a month or so all the skin comes off like a snake shedding its skin,” NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy told The Washington Post. “I remember taking my sock off one day about a month or two into the mission, and it was like an explosion of dead skin floating around me. Then I realized my feet were as soft as a baby’s bottom.”

Also, some nasty pathogens, such as Staphylococcus and Propionibacterium. They tend to settle on surfaces and get swept up in vacuum cleaners. The air on the ISS, even if it doesn’t smell great, is pretty darn clean.

“The ISS is a unique built environment,” Venkateswaran said. “People assume it’s filthy, but it’s not. It’s many, many times cleaner than your bathroom at home.”

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