NASA funded SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft development under a Commercial Crew Program contract to end dependency on buying seats aboard Russian spacecraft, and launch astronauts from American soil once again. The agency has not launched astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) ever since the Space Shuttle was grounded in 2011. SpaceX made history when it launched NASA Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the space station on Saturday, May 30. A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A, propelling Dragon to orbit.
About nine years ago, Astronaut Hurley performed the last Space Shuttle mission launched from American soil, he left a United States flag at the space station. The flag flew on the first space shuttle flight in 1981 and the final one in 2011. The agency used the flag as an incentive to start a new space race and motivate aerospace companies to develop technology to conduct human missions launched from American soil. Whoever launched astronauts first, would win the flag. The agency detailed the purpose of the flag in 2011:
“The flag will remain displayed onboard the station until the next crew launched from the US retrieves it for return to Earth so that it can be carried by the first crew launched from the US on a journey of exploration beyond Earth orbit.”
So, this flag will be a treasure that could one day travel on future missions to the moon and Mars.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk, tweeted in 2011 after the final Space Shuttle retired – “SpaceX commencing flag capturing sequence…” Yesterday, as the astronauts arrived at ISS aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft Musk shared the post, captioned: “Nine years later”
The flag is very special to Hurley because he was who left it there almost a decade ago. “Brought home by same person who placed it there almost a decade ago,” Musk noted via Twitter.
In a press conference from space early today, June 1, Hurley said the flag represents the hard work of thousands of NASA and SpaceX teams who helped reignite the new era of human spaceflight in the United States. Hurley showed off the flag to the audience via NASA TV, which now features a note from NASA Astronaut Chris Cassidy, who was already working at the station, the note reads: “Do not forget to take with Crew Dragon.” (video below)
“You can bet we will take it with us when we depart back to Earth,” said Hurley, floating in zero gravity alongside Dragon crewmate Behnken. “We are lucky enough to be able to take it home with us,” he added. Astronaut Hurley will bring the flag to Earth aboard Dragon upon mission completion –
“Congratulations, SpaceX, you got the flag!”
“It’s awe-inspiring for all of us,” SpaceX manager Benji Reed told the astronauts via video call from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Reed asked the astronauts how their ride during liftoff went. Hurley shared he could feel when the rocket broke the sound barrier and felt like “driving fast, very fast on a gravel road.”
To celebrate the Class of 2020, SpaceX and NASA invited students from around the world to submit their photo to fly alongside astronauts aboard Dragon. All photos are printed in a mosaic of Earth. During today’s NASA TV live broadcast from the space station, the astronauts congratulated the Class of 2020 students by presenting the poster that is now at the orbiting laboratory (video above). “When Behnken & Hurley launched to the Space Station on the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour, they brought a mosaic of Earth with 90,000 pictures of recent graduates,” NASA announced.