- As two NASA astronauts prepare to return to Earth this weekend, SpaceX is poised to win a high-stakes game of capture the flag.
- President Barack Obama started the competition nine years ago, when his administration funded a public-private partnership program in which NASA would work with companies to send humans to space.
- SpaceX beat Boeing, the other company in the contest, to the first crewed launch: the May 30 flight of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
- The American flag flew on the first space shuttle and has stayed on the International Space Station since the vehicles stopped launching in 2011.
- Behnken and Hurley are now poised to bring the flag home.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley return to Earth on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship, they’ll be carrying an American flag with even more symbolism than usual.
The flag first rocketed to orbit on the inaugural space shuttle mission, STS-1. It was left on the ISS by the crew of NASA’s final space shuttle flight in 2011, called STS-135, of which Hurley was a member. The idea was that the next astronauts to launch on an American spacecraft from US soil would return the flag to Earth.
But at that time, it wasn’t yet clear which company would get there first, or which astronauts would be selected for that mission.
“I understand it’s going to be sort of like a capture-the-flag moment here for commercial spaceflight. So good luck to whoever grabs that flag,” President Barack Obama said on a phone call with Hurley and his colleagues in 2011.
SpaceX launched Behnken and Hurley toward the International Space Station on May 30, marking the aerospace company’s first crewed flight and the first time humans have ever flown a commercial spacecraft to orbit.
Behnken and Hurley docked to the ISS on May 31, then climbed through the hatch into the football-field-sized floating laboratory. In that moment, they put Elon Musk‘s rocket company on the cusp of winning the nine-year-long game of capture the flag.
Soon after, Hurley held the flag up to NASA’s live broadcast cameras beside Behnken and astronaut Chris Cassidy.
“Chris had it right on the hatch where we left it nine years ago,” Hurley said in June. “He’s got a note: ‘Do not forget to take with Crew Dragon.'”
On Saturday, as Behnken and Hurley wrapped up their two-month stay with a goodbye ceremony, the flag came up again.
“I do want to make mention of this very special flag,” Cassidy said. “It has deep, deep space history — and getting deeper — as this flag will return to Earth with the Crew Dragon guys, and spend a little bit of time on Earth and, very soon, make a trip to the moon.”
Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to undock from the space station at 7:34 p.m. ET on Saturday, then begin a fiery, high-speed journey through Earth’s atmosphere. Assuming all goes according to plan, they’ll splash down on Sunday at 2:42 p.m., off the coast of Florida. At that point, SpaceX will have successfully captured the flag. (Watch NASA’s continuous live coverage of their return flight here.)
“The race isn’t over until it’s over,” Behnken told reporters ahead of the May launch.
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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 aim was to restore the US’s ability to launch its own astronauts into space after the space shuttle program ended.
Both SpaceX and Boeing made it through the rigorous reviews and testing required by NASA. The space agency has contributed more than $3.1 billion of funding to SpaceX in the nearly decade-long partnership. Boeing has received about $4.8 billion in contracts.
Boeing launched first, but software issues plagued the company’s uncrewed test flight to the space station. The close calls triggered a series of required reviews and a forthcoming re-do mission before the company can launch astronauts.
In turn, the lurch opened a window for SpaceX to accomplish its first crewed flight.
“We really are focused on making sure that we … accomplish the ultimate mission, which isn’t winning against Boeing. It’s providing this capability to the International Space Station so that we can start rotating crews from American soil,” Behnken said before the May launch.
For Hurley, the flag symbolizes that long journey and the dawning new era of commercial spaceflight.
“You can bet we will take it with us when we depart back to Earth,” Hurley said as he presented the flag. “The important point is, as I said before, just returning launch capability to the United States to and from the International Space Station. That’s what this flag really means.”
Susie Neilson contributed reporting for this story.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on June 2, 2020.
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