- SpaceX is ready to win a high-stakes game in which astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are preparing to return to Earth this weekend.
- President Barack Obama launched the competition nine years ago when his government funded a public-private partnership program in which NASA would work with companies to send people into space.
- SpaceX beat the other company in the competition, Boeing, to its first launch with crew.
- The American flag flew with the first space shuttle and has remained on the International Space Station since the shuttles stopped in 2011, waiting for the first commercial spacecraft crew to claim them.
- You can find more stories on the Business Insider homepage.
When NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley return to Earth on the SpaceX Crew Dragon, they will carry an American flag with even more symbolism than usual.
The trophy in question is a flag that fluttered on the first space shuttle mission. It was abandoned on the ISS by the crew of NASA̵
At this point, however, it was not yet clear which company would arrive there first or which astronauts would be selected for this mission.
“I understand that for commercial space travel it will be a moment of conquering the flag. So good luck to anyone who flies the flag,” said President Barack Obama in a 2011 phone call to Hurley and colleagues.
SpaceX launched Behnken and Hurley towards the International Space Station in May, the first time humans have flown a commercial spacecraft into orbit. They moored at the ISS and climbed through the hatch into the floating laboratory the size of a soccer field.
At that moment, they launched Elon Musk’s rocket company into the culmination of the nine-year game in which the flag was conquered.
Shortly thereafter, Hurley held the flag next to Behnken and astronaut Chris Cassidy on NASA’s live cameras.
“Chris had it right on the hatch where we left it nine years ago,” said Hurley. “He has a note: ‘Don’t forget to take Crew Dragon with you.'”
—NASA (@NASA) June 1, 2020
Behnken and Hurley are expected to undock from the space station at 7:34 p.m. ET on Saturday and then begin a fiery high-speed journey through the Earth’s atmosphere. Provided everything goes according to plan, they will splash off the coast of Florida on Sunday at 2:42 p.m. At this point, SpaceX successfully captured the flag. Here you can follow NASA’s live report on the return flight.
“The race isn’t over until it’s over,” Behnken told reporters before the start in May.
The world’s first commercial space flight
The Demo 2 mission is the product of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership that President Barack Obama launched in 2011. The goal was to restore the ability of the United States to launch its own astronauts after the space shuttle program ended.
Both SpaceX and Boeing have passed NASA’s rigorous reviews and tests. The space agency has donated more than $ 3.1 billion to SpaceX in the nearly ten-year partnership. Boeing has received approximately $ 4.8 billion in contracts. Software problems, however, plagued Boeing’s unscrewed test flight to the space station, triggering a series of required checks and an upcoming repeat mission before the company could launch astronauts.
So SpaceX first completed its first flight with the crew.
If everything goes well this weekend, NASA hopes to regularly transport astronauts to and from the station on the Crew Dragon.
“We really focus on making sure that we … accomplish the ultimate mission that doesn’t win against Boeing. It gives the International Space Station this ability so that we can rotate crews from American soil,” Behnken said earlier this May .
For Hurley, the flag symbolizes this long journey and the beginning of a new era in commercial space travel.
“You can bet we will take it with us when we return to Earth,” said Hurley when he presented the flag. “The important point, as I said, is the return of launch capability to and from the International Space Station in the United States. That is exactly what this flag means.”
Susie Neilson contributed to the coverage of this story.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally released on June 2, 2020.
Do you have a story or inside information about the space industry? Email Dave Mosher to [email protected] or a direct Twitter message to @davemosher. Other secure communication options are listed here.