- SpaceX is poised to win a game with a high commitment to capture the flag as astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley prepare to return to Earth this weekend.
- President Barack Obama started the competition nine years ago, when his administration funded a public-private partnership program in which NASA worked with companies to send humans into space.
- SpaceX beat the other company in the competition, Boeing, for its first crew launch.
- The American flag flew on the first space shuttle and has remained on the International Space Station since the shuttles stopped launching in 2011, waiting for the first commercial space crew to request it.
- Visit the Business Insider homepage for more stories.
When NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley return to Earth on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, they will carry an American flag with even more embolism than usual.
The trophy in question is a flag flown in the first space shuttle mission. In 2011 he was left on the ISS by NASA’s final space flight crew in 2011, of which Hurley was a member. The idea was for the next astronauts to launch an American spacecraft from American soil to return the flag to Earth.
But at the time, it was still unclear which company would get there first, or which astronauts would be selected for that mission.
“I understand it’s going to be like a moment of capturing the flag here for commercial space. So good luck to anyone who takes the flag,” President Barack Obama said on a phone call with Hurley and the his colleagues in 2011.
SpaceX launched Behnken and Hurley to the International Space Station in May, marking the first time humans have ever flown a commercial spacecraft. They grabbed the ISS, then climbed out of the hatches into the football-sized laboratory.
At that moment, they put rocket company Elon Musk on the winning chest of the nine-year-old flag-catching game.
Shortly afterwards, Hurley held the flag in the hands of NASA’s live broadcast cameras next to Behnken and astronaut Chris Cassidy.
“Chris had it right on the hatch where we left off nine years ago,” Hurley said. “He took note: ‘Don’t forget to take the Crew Dragon.'”
—NASA (@NASA) June 1, 2020
Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to be cut off from the space station at 7:34 pm ET on Saturday, then embark on a powerful, high-speed journey into Earth’s atmosphere. Assuming everything goes according to plan, they’ll be climbing down on Sunday at 2:42 pm, off the Florida coast. At that point, SpaceX will have successfully picked up the flag. You can see NASA’s direct return flight coverage here.
“The race didn’t end until it ended,” Behnken told reporters ahead of the May launch.
The first commercial space liquid in the world
The Demo-2 mission is the product of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership that President Barack Obama started in 2011. The goal was to restore the U.S.’s ability to launch its own astronauts into space after the space shuttle program ended.
Both SpaceX and Boeing have done this through the rigorous reviews and testing required by NASA. The space agency has contributed more than $ 3.1 billion in funding to SpaceX in the nearly decade-long partnership. Boeing received about $ 4.8 billion in contracts. But software issues plague Boeing’s untransferred flight to the space station, leading to a series of necessary revisions and a mission to do it again before the company can launch astronauts.
So SpaceX made its first crew flight first.
If all goes well this weekend, NASA hopes to regularly charge astronauts to and from the station on the Dragon Crew.
“We really are focused on making sure we carry out … the ultimate mission, which is not a win against Boeing. It provides this capability to the International Space Station so we can start rotating crews from American soil,” Behnken said earlier the May launch.
For Hurley, the flag symbolizes that long journey and the new era of commercial space flow.
“You can bet I take it with us when we go back to Earth,” Hurley said as he presented the flag. “The important point is, as I said before, it’s just returning the launch capability to the United States to and from the International Space Station. That’s really the flag.”
Susie Neilson contributed reporting to this story.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on June 2, 2020.
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