NEW ORLEANS — NASA has picked the afternoon of May 27 to launch the next step in America's space mission. That afternoon, if the schedule holds, will see the first manned mission to the International Space Station launched from American soil since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.
When the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule launches, it will also mark the first time a spacecraft built by a private company will take men into space. The commander is Col. Doug Hurley, who has a special connection to New Orleans, as a Tulane University graduate.
When we visited him at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in early March, before the coronavirus lockdown, we saw him and fellow astronaut Bob Behnken practicing in the International Space Station module. Lives depend on getting every step right and it’s difficult when they’re weightless.
“It’s a lot harder to get in the suit on the ground. Once they’re on orbit though, they can slide right in, they’re in Zero-G, but getting out is sometimes really hard,” said Grant Slusser, KBR Chief Training Officer.
Hurley invited me into the Space Station air lock and told me what it’s like to wear a space suit.
“It’s bulky, it’s heavy, it’s pressurized inside, so you’re working against the pressure, so after six hours, my experience has been you’re pretty well tired after six hours,” he said.
Hurley and Behnken are the first astronauts for America’s next mission in space, the NASA commercial partnership with SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts to the Space Station for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended.
“I’m very excited, as I think most people would be,” Hurley said. “It’s been quite a while. What I’m probably most excited about is renewing…being part of the, renewing the capability of U.S. launches to low earth orbit.”
We met Doug nine years ago, when he was the pilot of the last Space Shuttle mission. He showed us what it was like to fly the shuttle and explained how much fun it is to be in control of such a massive machine. “You have to pinch yourself sometimes because it’s like, ‘I can’t believe I’m flying the space shuttle,’” Hurley said.
“Seven years ago, eight years ago, I trained him (Hurley) for the last shuttle flight and now it’s really good to get him back, and to come back for one of the first ones from U.S. soil,” said Slusser.
How different is Crew Dragon from the Space Shuttle? “I would say it is as different as it could possibly be,” Hurley said.
Now he will be the commander of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule and he says it is comfortable, roomy and very high-tech, with all mission data on three screens.
“They have base displays and then they have some systems displays and emergency procedures and regular procedures and all that is accessed through the display, so it’s all touch screen,” he said.
The launch will be computerized, but the astronauts can fly the capsule when necessary and they will do that on the first mission, to test its capabilities.
“We’ll do some maneuvering there, just to make sure everything works like it’s supposed to, the controls – when I hit an ‘up,’ the vehicle goes up. When I go ‘down,’ it goes down, left, right,” Hurley said.
The capsule will parachute back to Earth; the first time for America since the Apollo program.
“Like any other activity like this, it has its inherent dangers, just like when I fly jets, just like when we flew the Space Shuttle,” Hurley said. “I’m very comfortable.”
In fact, the astronauts have offered design advice to SpaceX designers on the capsule and the unique space suits they’ll wear in it. “It actually is very comfortable,” Hurley told us.
But he can’t wait to make his third visit to the International Space Station, though being weightless the first time was a bit challenging.
“I didn’t feel like eating for probably about a day,” he said.
But now Hurley knows that even the simplest actions in space have consequences.
“Everything in space is kind of messy and not nearly as glamorous as I think people want to think it is, in the sense that everything that is on you, around you, that you consume or put out of your body can end up anywhere in the Space Station, if that makes any sense…without getting too graphic.”
But the view just can’t be beat.
“We were going over the Southern Lights, it was west of Australia and it was a nighttime pass and sitting in the cupola, I remember distinctly, you could see the ribbons of the Aurora coming up, and we were flying through it. And I was like, it felt like a movie, it felt like a science fiction movie.”
Doug Hurley’s path to space really got a huge boost in New Orleans in 1988, when he graduated from Tulane University with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering magna cum laude. But he was also in Tulane’s Naval ROTC program. That led him to joining the Marines, becoming a fighter pilot, a test pilot and 20 years ago, an astronaut.
“I can’t begin to tell you just the start that it gave me, and the city is part of that,” he said.
Hurley lives in Houston, but says New Orleans still feels like home. “I still have close friends that live there. In fact, I got a text from a couple of them the other day, ‘When are you launching?’”
What’s his message to New Orleans about this new mission and their connection to it?
“There’ll be something from New Orleans on that space ship,” he said. We asked if he were taking some boiled crawfish up there? “We have a rule on Dragon, no fish,” he joked.
Hurley and Behnken are expected to stay on the Space Station between one and four months before they return to earth aboard the Crew Dragon, and parachute into the ocean. After that, Crew Dragon is expected to begin regular missions to bring astronauts and supplies to the Space Station.
Boeing also is working on a capsule for space station missions and the Starliner is still being tested.