Last Saturday, NASA astronauts rocketed into space. The historic launch drew crowds along Florida beaches. It was the first U.S. liftoff in nearly a decade—and it was unique because it happened as a result of a joint partnership between the government space agency and a private business. Just two days later, SpaceX declared yet another victory: winners in a cosmic game of capture the flag.
A notebook-sized American flag flew on the first space shuttle flight in 1981. The same one flew on the final one in 2011. The crew left the Stars and Stripes behind at the International Space Station.
Bagging the famous flag was added motivation for Elon Musk’s SpaceX company and Boeing. Both were competing to be the first private company to launch a crew to the space station. Boeing’s first astronaut flight isn’t expected until next year.
“Congratulations, SpaceX, you got the flag,” NASA astronaut Doug Hurley told an excited audience at SpaceX headquarters in California a day after arriving at the space station. Hurley was also part of the 2011 mission that left the flag.
“You can bet we will take it with us when we depart back to Earth,” he said, floating alongside crewmate Bob Behnken.
An estimated 100,000 people—suppliers, vendors, engineers, etc.—were responsible for Saturday’s flawless launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center. The Dragon capsule, also built and owned by SpaceX, docked at the space station Sunday. Hurley and Behnken joined three space station residents—an American and two Russians.
SpaceX manager Benji Reed asked the astronauts about the Falcon ride. Hurley said he could feel when the rocket broke the sound barrier. He said the final push to orbit was full of vibrations and felt like “driving fast, very fast on a gravel road.”
The astronauts instantly went from pulling more than three times the force of Earth’s gravity—to zero gravity when they reached orbit. “Sounds like the ultimate ride in a Batmobile with the jet engine turned on,” Reed says.
One of the first things Behnken did upon reaching the orbiting lab was call his six-year-old son, Theo. He wanted to discuss Theo’s thoughts about the blastoff “while it was still fresh in his mind.”
NASA will keep Hurley and Behnken at the space station from one to four months. The timing depends on how the Dragon performs in orbit and preparations for the company’s next astronaut flight—currently planned for August.
Behnken says it’s a little hard explaining to his son when he’d back. But, Behnken says, “He’s just excited that we’re going to get a dog when I get home.”
(NASA astronauts Robert L. Behnken, left, and Chris Cassidy, right, listen as commander Douglas Hurley speaks about retrieving the American flag for SpaceX on Monday, June 1, 2020. NASA via AP)