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Astronauts arrive in Florida to set new NASA traditions for crewed spaceflight

Alan Boyle
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley take questions from journalists after their arrival at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA Photo)

Two NASA astronauts landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida today to go through a set of pre-launch traditions that haven’t been followed for nearly nine years — and create a few new traditions as well.

When Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken walked out of a NASA Gulfstream jet and met the press, they began a routine that’s due to climax next week with the first orbital launch from U.S. soil since the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is due to loft their commercial Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station a week from today. But first, they’ll participate remotely in a flight readiness review on Thursday, and then go through an in-person launch rehearsal at historic Launch Complex 39A on Saturday.

They’ll also spend relaxation time with their families at Kennedy Space Center’s Beach House, a retreat that’s been used by NASA astronauts since the 1960s.

Hurley — who’ll be the spacecraft commander on the Crew Dragon — acknowledged that the coronavirus outbreak has thrown “a huge wrinkle” into preparations for the upcoming demonstration mission, known as Demo-2 or DM-2.

The astronauts and their families have been going through stricter-than-usual quarantine procedures to minimize the risk of catching  COVID-19. Some of the training sessions had to be recast as virtual rather than in-person experiences.

Hurley marveled at how quickly and how well the NASA and SpaceX teams have adjusted to the changed circumstances. “There have been so many things over the course of the last several years that have amazed me, but that certainly is high on the list,” he told the mask-wearing journalists who gathered on the runway for today’s arrival ceremony.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and KSC director Bob Cabana wore masks when they greeted the astronauts and observed social distancing guidelines during the news briefing that followed.

Bridenstine asked the astronauts about any new traditions they’re creating to mark a new era of American spaceflight — an era that’s no longer limited to Russian Soyuz spacecraft for rides to orbit.

“We feel somewhat responsible to continue some of these really neat traditions that both the Soyuz crews have had for many years, and the shuttle crews have had,” Hurley said, “and then maybe come up with a few of our own.”

He said he and Behnken drew upon their test pilot experiences with “tagging,” and slapped a sticker for their DM-2 mission on their Crew Dragon spacecraft simulator in Houston at the end of their final proficiency training session on Tuesday.

Behnken said he adapted a pre-launch tradition that’s followed by spacefliers at Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and planted a tree with his family in Houston during a private ceremony.

“My son will always have that lemon tree that he was a part of planting,” Behnken said. “Hopefully it makes it through Houston’s hot summer this year and becomes a tradition for some other folks as well.”

The original version of this report referred to an outdated video about a launch-pad tour given by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

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