On May 30—for the first time in history—NASA astronauts launched from American soil in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft to the International Space Station. Authors in our Outward Odyssey Series reflect on the history, emotions, and promise of that historic launch.
Contributor to Footprints in the Dust; author of the forthcoming A Long Voyage to the Moon biography of Ron Evans
When I last watched live TV of a “new vehicle” being launched from Kennedy Space Center, it was the Ares 1X, a mission to nowhere in a program about to be cancelled. Nearly 11 years later the launch which I have just witnessed placed two astronauts in a precise orbit, with a space station as their destination. To me, Falcon 9 is the Saturn 1B reborn for 21st century missions. Falcon has the same first-stage fuel and oxidizer, comparable thrust, 9 engines rather than 8, but is also slimmer, sleeker and—crucially—partly reusable. The vehicle and the system ooze efficiency, but that launch also looked good as SpaceX lit their candle and Doug and Bob soared skyward. Believe me, you didn’t have to be an American to feel the heart pumping and the adrenaline surging as KSC got back to doing what it does best.
I read an unrelated article during the week in which it was ventured that time does not have a pause button. It’s good that it doesn’t, as I sat thrilled to the core at the lift-off of Demo-2 and the Dragon crew of two this morning, televised live here in Australia. Despite the massive thrust dynamic associated with the launch, it looked so elegant and even graceful as this pencil-thin rocket soared into the sky. I’m old enough to recall another, albeit less graceful, pencil-thin rocket tearing into the Florida sky back in May 1961, when Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard was launched on America’s first crewed space flight. We can all recall an impatient Shepard exhorting Mission Control to rid the launch of its delays and “Light this candle!” How appropriate today to hear Doug Hurley echo those same words from 59 years ago. Time may not have a pause button, but time and humanity moves on, and a whole new, challenging and exciting chapter in space travel has begun. As Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins once said, “It’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see. Exploration is not a choice really—it’s an imperative.”
Co-author of Come Fly With Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program
May 30, 2020 was a milestone for America’s space program; for me it was a day full of hope, anticipation, and pride. Launching astronauts to the ISS on Soyuz spacecraft is still a risky business—even after years of countless successful flights. But none of those flights carried the emotion of this crewed SpaceX Demo-2 launch. The time difference and limited news coverage out of Kazakhstan for the Soyuz launches made it difficult to connect with our astronauts launching from there. Fortunately the launch of Demo-2 was covered extensively by the media over the past week here in the United States, and Americans learned the names of the astronauts—Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken—memorized their faces, and prayed for their safety. We knew them.
We were all hopeful that OUR two astronauts would fare well that day. And although the numbers told me this would be a successful launch, I sat on the edge of my sofa during the countdown—eyes glued to the TV screen and full of anticipation—the same way I felt when Alan Shepard became the first American in space. The successful launch of two American astronauts from American soil has restored my pride in our space program! Soon Boeing will also be ferrying astronauts to the ISS aboard the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, and not many years after NASA plans to plant boots again on the moon. The future is bright for America’s continued exploration of space, both in Earth orbit and beyond. Yes, May 30, 2020 was a good day!
Growing up during the Apollo race to the Moon lost me a lot of sleep. No matter when there was a launch scheduled, or an important mission milestone such as a spacewalk, a docking, a lunar landing, or stepping onto the Moon’s dusty surface, I was up with my eyes glued to the screen to watch every second. The same was true for the Space Shuttle era, especially because of the nearly six year wait to see a rocket roar off the pad again between the mission of Apollo-Soyuz and that of Columbia.
When Atlantis completed its mission on orbit in 2011, I doubt many of us believed we would have to wait nine years to see the next launch from American soil. The wait dragged on so long, the thoughts often became, “Would this ever happen again? Have we given up on space exploration?”
Finally everything came together with the launch of a Falcon 9 booster and two astronauts aboard Crew Dragon on Demo Flight 2. But my excitement was mitigated this time around since just two days before liftoff my wife had undergone her second open-heart surgery. After an excruciatingly long time in the operating room, she was recovering well, but then things went badly. It became a night of no sleep awaiting word of how she was doing. Would she pull through the complications that had set in? All this was made even worse by the coronavirus pandemic that kept me away from being there with her in the hospital.
It was 26 hours before the bleeding stopped and she came off the ventilator. Her throat was sore and her voice raspy, but we could finally talk again. The terror of the night before melted away. The next day I told her I would not disturb her, and would let her sleep, but then the launch of Crew Dragon was fast approaching, so I broke my promise and got her back on the phone. She found a station carrying the launch, so we watched a new era of space exploration begin together, even though we were physically still apart, me at home and Cherie in the ICU. Her excitement shined through her pain. She sounded like she always did when we shared adventures together. There is still a long road of recovery ahead for her, just like we have a long journey in front of us for humanity’s road to the stars. But in both cases, we’ll get there.
In the UNP book In the Shadow of the Moon, we talk about the Apollo 8 mission. It flew in late 1968, a year where the news was dominated by war and civil unrest. The image of the peaceful-looking earth in all its beauty, from lunar orbit, provided a much-needed sense of balance. So much so that an anonymous telegram was sent to the crew after the mission. It said simply, “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
Watching the launch of the first mission into orbit from American soil in nine years—from the exact same pad as Apollo 8, in fact—gave me a similar moment of hope, happiness and peace in a turbulent year of civil unrest and a global pandemic. It may be too early to say, “Thank you, NASA and SpaceX. You saved 2020,” but right now it is feeling like it may well be the high point we all sorely needed.
Author of To A Distant Day: The Rocket Pioneers
Although Crew Dragon Demo-2 is the first crewed flight of a new spacecraft and a launch vehicle in nearly four decades, I did not feel the same tension as I did for Apollo 8 and the Saturn V, or for the first Shuttle flight, STS-1. The Saturn V had flown only twice before Apollo 8, and its second flight was a partial failure. And Apollo 8 was headed, for the first time in human history, far beyond low Earth orbit to the Moon. The Space Shuttle had never flown into space before. STS-1 was arguably the most dangerous flight ever of a crewed spacecraft. Falcon 9 has flown many times, and the uncrewed version of Dragon has proven itself over the past decade.
To me, the importance of Demo-2 lies not in the fact that it is a brand new spacecraft or that it ends the unfortunately long period without a launch of astronauts from the United States. It is the fact that the Dragon spacecraft, admittedly with lots of help from NASA and American taxpayers, is the first of a whole new generation of spacecraft that won’t belong to a government but to private firms. Soon the Boeing Starliner and human spacecraft built by other firms will be available to carry humans into space. Soon SpaceX. Boeing and other firms will fly their own missions, and their spacecraft will be available for other organizations and individuals that have the means. This should mean that access to space for Americans or anyone else from friendly countries will no longer be dependent on the ability and willingness of U.S. taxpayers to support space travel when there are so many other calls on government resources. Future space travelers should have something they really haven’t had before: choice.
The launch of two astronauts on board Dragon and Falcon represents the beginning of a new era of access to space. That means more possibilities to fly for Americans who aren’t professional astronauts—Tom Cruise’s recently announced plans to film in space come to mind. It also means more opportunities to enter space for people from outside the U.S. Fewer than 600 people have been in space over the nearly 60 years since Yuri Gagarin. Perhaps now the ranks of space explorers will begin to increase in a dramatic fashion.
Last time I felt like this, I borrowed my sister’s tape recorder. A General Electric with fake chrome that she got for Christmas. To make it run I scavenged a mismatch of “C” batteries and found a used K mart tape cassette which had, I think, homemade Halloween sounds on it. Best I could do at age ten. Now quick to the basement! Rotate a big plastic knob on the Sears tube TV with its rabbit ears poking out. Analog electronics warming up. Go faster! It was April 12th of 1981 and I pushed down RECORD-PLAY with no time to lose. “This is Hugh Harris of launch control.” Born too late for seeing Apollo as it happened, today signaled the beginning of MY generation’s space program. “We’ve gone for main engine start; we HAVE main engine start. And we have liftoff. LIFTOFF of America’s first Space Shuttle! And the Shuttle has cleared the tower!” Crackling boosters; away to orbit. The experience cemented my inner space geek. And watching Dragon take flight today with real-live people aboard, I can only hope that it has maybe inspired a new crop of ten year-olds.
My father, growing up, witnessed first flights—of Mercury, of Gemini and of Apollo.
Twenty years after watching Alan Shepard make the first American spaceflight on Freedom 7, my father took his first-born son—me—and sat down in front of the television. We watched together another first flight, as John Young and Bob Crippen and Columbia made the historic first launch of the space shuttle.
The existence of Bold They Rise, and much of the course of my career, doubtless have roots in that shared moment of parent and child.
Nearly forty years later, my father and I this weekend were once again in front of the television together, to watch yet another first flight, this time with my son. I have no illusion that this shared moment will have the impact on my six-month-old son that STS-1 had on five-year-old me. My son was more interested in his granddaddy than in the rocket, and I respect that—granddaddy is a good man.
But my son and I will continue to share firsts—the first crewed flight of Starliner, the first flight of SLS, the first woman on the moon—and one will become the first to make a lasting memory for him.
Many years from now, perhaps my son and his child will have that shared moment together as another crew makes history with another first. The crews change, the spacecraft change, the generations change, the Outward Odyssey continues.
Nearly ten full years later, I can still feel the crushing embarrassment and pain in my ribs as I desperately tried to suck in my oversized belly.
I squirmed this way and that, trying to fasten the harnesses of the Space Shuttle motion-base simulator. Nothing worked. The left lap belt … would … not … fasten.
And Doug Hurley … ASTRONAUT Doug Hurley … stood over me, trying to help, but not saying a single hurtful word about my predicament. Many, many others hadn’t been so kind.
Eventually, we “flew” the Shuttle with the one belt unfastened, doing two launch and five landing simulations. It was a highlight of my career, and a turning point personally. Every day since, I’ve tried to be far more careful about my health in general, and my weight in particular.
And Doug Hurley was there at Ground Zero.
Doug and I first came into contact due to our shared love for NASCAR, and he was an important part of Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program. We’ve kept in touch through texts and email, once every few months, all along. Doug invited my family and I to his two Shuttle launches, and he, wife Karen Nyberg and their son Jack attended the Houston premiere of Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, the documentary based on my UNP Outward Odyssey book Go, Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control.
When Doug and Bob Behnken leaped off the launch pad Saturday afternoon to begin DM-2, SpaceX’s first crewed spaceflight, it was an experience to actually know someone on board. What do I want out of the flight?
For Doug and Bob to come home safely to their families. THAT will be mission success.
Author of The Ultimate Engineer
A new chapter in human spaceflight has begun. The long-held dream of (relatively) inexpensive, reusable, and frequent access to space has dawned, writing the first opening sentences of what is sure to be an exciting narrative over the coming years. Sure, there were familiar sights and sounds, too. The impressive image of a massive rocket lifting off into the future from pad 39A. Acronym-filled flight lingo striking this old-hand enthusiast as familiar: MaxQ, MECO, SECO, and the like. Commentators and enthusiasts referring to the astronauts by their first names, as if Bob and Doug were long established acquaintances. Even, tragically, a global pandemic set against a tense international zeitgeist and social-political unrest in the U.S. provided an eerily similar tone to the late 1960s: like then, as now, the launch gave millions of people the world over a unifying point of positive interest to rally around, if only for a matter of minutes or hours. (Thankfully!)
Still, this time was different. The bold public-private partnership not only created a new mode of space flight (one that might flippantly but accurately be called the rental-car mode versus the prior buy or lease modes available), but a new way of viewing and experiencing them as well. This flight marked an unprecedented partnership of the private company marketers with the public enterprise communicators. It ushered in new access for the public along every minute of the pre-flight, flight, and post-flight events. We saw, heard, and experienced even the most personal of moments between the astronauts and families, as they bid farewell before heading to the pad. They didn’t just tell us about it, but they took us along for the ride! We also got direct updates and commentary from the astronauts and engineers and technicians via social media, unfiltered by a layer of media correspondents and P.R. gatekeepers.
It was a hyper-connected, high-definition communal experience—the best of which the new world of online streaming, social media, and ubiquitous connectivity can generate. But the past is also prologue in that the public has a short memory. The new sugar high of access will only demand more. But the success so far of Crew Dragon Demo—2 portends well for the space faring world’s eager fanbase. Bob and Doug’s grand adventure will not simply mark an end of this story when they return to earth, but rather represents the beginning of a whole new global content franchise. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for chapter two.
Co-author of Realizing Tomorrow
Space is hard and risky. A decade ago, astronaut Bob Hurley piloting the last Space Shuttle flight to the station would not have imagined that he would be launching today on a vehicle developed by an upstart maverick with no legacy of spaceflight, on a reusable Falcon9 rocket that can land back on an unstable barge called Of Course I Still Love You. As the minutes of anxious anticipation melted into an explosion of new hope, SpaceX Dragon’s launch to the ISS today begins a new era of true commercial human spaceflight transportation, and visions of voyages to private stations, the Moon, Mars, and beyond. It carries with it humanity’s collective dreams of exploring and living on new worlds yet to be discovered, not just for a chosen few, but for all of us here on planet Earth.
Co-Author of Come Fly With Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program
Like many of these authors, my first “first flight” was STS-1. The excitement of that day was certainly matched watching SpaceX put men into space for the first time, but not just because it was a brand new vehicle.
America had waited nine long years to be able to launch our own astronauts to a space station built largely by the U.S. That is three years longer than the gap between the last Apollo mission, the Apollo/ Soyuz Test Project, and STS-1. And much like the days of that first shuttle flight, there is now renewed excitement about the possibly of many more people having the opportunity to fly in space.
Launch day had a welcomed familiarity, yet was very different at times. Young and Crippen were all business. Relaxed, smiling, but focused and insulated from outsiders. Now thirty-nine years later, Bridenstine and Musk coming into the suit room during the first attempt was something new. They were nervous, particularly Musk. Aside from Behnken and Hurley, he had the most riding on a successful outcome.
The walkout was “nominal” until the crew stopped, in front of NASA worm-logo Tesla Model X’s, to say goodbye to their families. Both have astronaut wives and young sons. The few words, waves, and virtual hugs was another new scene for the worldwide audience to share.
Boarding their new spaceship, Behnken and Hurley each tore the Velcro name tags from the SpaceX pad crews’ suits and stowed them for a flight to space. With the hatch closed, the distractions were gone. They were back to business, just like Young and Crippen. There was nothing left to do but light the candle—on a whole new era of spaceflight possibilities.