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NASA’s Dragon riders capture the flag, nine years after it was left on the space station

Alan Boyle
NASA astronaut Doug Hurley shows off the U.S. flag that was left aboard the International Space Station in 2011 by the last space shuttle crew. Hurley and Behnken, at left, will take the flag back to Earth with them aboard their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. The space station’s current commander, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, is at right. (NASA via YouTube)

A day after arriving at the International Space Station on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken laid claim to a U.S. flag that symbolizes America’s capability to send people to orbit from U.S. soil.

The handkerchief-sized flag, sealed in a plastic envelope, has been kept aboard the space station since 2011, when NASA’s final space shuttle crew left it behind before making their departure aboard Atlantis.

It was displayed above the Harmony module’s hatch — and, for a time, stored in an equipment bag, nearly forgotten — with instructions that it was to be taken back to Earth by the next crew launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

That moment finally came on Sunday, when Hurley and Behnken floated through the Harmony hatch after their launch 19 hours earlier.

Two other angles add to the significance of the moment. The flag first flew into space on the very first flight of the space shuttle program, back in 1981. And among the members of the crew who left it on the station in 2011 was Hurley, who was Atlantis’ pilot back then and is now spacecraft commander for the SpaceX capsule.

Hurley held out the flag when he was asked about it today during a space-to-ground news briefing.

“We have talked about this flag before — many times over the last nine years since we left it here on STS-135 — and I think the important part is … just returning launch capability to the United States to and from the International Space Station,” Hurley said. “That’s what the flag really means. And I think a little bit more: It’s to the thousands of people who made it possible, from the folks at SpaceX to the folks at NASA, to the folks within the commercial crew program. We just are lucky enough to take it home with us.”

The flag was the focus of a friendly competition with Boeing, which has been developing its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft as an alternate ride for astronauts bound for the space station. The commander of the shuttle mission that left the flag on the station, Chris Ferguson, is now a Boeing executive who’s slated to be a test pilot on Starliner’s first crewed flight.  That added to the good-natured rivalry.

For a time, the race to capture the flag seemed to be neck-and-neck, but when Starliner’s uncrewed test flight went awry last December, that made SpaceX and its Crew Dragon the clear favorite. After the Crew Dragon lifted off atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday, Ferguson tweeted that he was “proud to yield the title of ‘The last commander of an American launched spacecraft'” to Hurley.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk joined in the repartee, resurrecting a tweet from 2011 noting that SpaceX was “commencing flag capturing sequence.”

Hurley joked that the space station’s commander, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, attached a note to the flag saying, “Do not forget to take with Crew Dragon.”

“Depending on how long we stay up here, you can bet we will take it with us when we depart back to Earth,” Hurley said.

That could be as little as six weeks, or as long as four months. NASA is still assessing how long the mission should last, based on the space station’s needs for people power. Right now, the crew consists of the three Americans and two Russian cosmonauts, which is one person shy of the usual complement of six.

Cassidy said one of the first orders of business will be to unload tons of supplies that were delivered to the space station on a Japanese HTV robotic freighter a week ago. Among the payloads on the HTV are six replacement batteries that are due to be installed on the space station’s exterior during a series of spacewalks. Behnken, who conducted a total of six spacewalks during two shuttle flights, has been trained to assist Cassidy with the battery replacement job.

Another big task is to test the Crew Dragon in various modes of operation, which includes checking the communication configurations with the space station, trying out different power-up and power-down modes, and making sure the spacecraft is ready to serve as a lifeboat in the event of a space station emergency.

Behnken acknowledged that not knowing exactly when he and Hurley are coming back to Earth feels “a little bit strange.” But he said the uncertainty isn’t that big of a burden for him — or for his 6-year-old son.

“He’s just excited that we’re going to get a dog when I get home, so he’s accepted that uncertainty and [is] continuing to send messages to me while I’m on orbit,” Behnken said.

Although Behnken’s first Dragon ride is due to end when he and Hurley splash down in the Atlantic this summer, the U.S. flag will have a lot farther to go. NASA says it plans to send the flag back into space when the Artemis 2 crew goes on a round-the-moon trip in their Orion deep-space capsule, potentially as early as 2023. And who knows? In future years, it may be tucked into spacecraft carrying astronauts to the surface of the moon and Mars.

Other tidbits from today’s news briefing:

  • Cassidy agreed with an inquiring reporter that the Crew Dragon has a “new-car smell” when he looked through the hatch from the space station. “You could tell it was a brand-new vehicle, with smiling faces on the other side and smiling faces on mine, just as if you had bought a new car,” he said.
  • Behnken said the fact that the Crew Dragon’s Falcon 9 rocket was being loaded with propellant while the astronauts were in the capsule meant there were sounds and vibrations that shuttle astronauts wouldn’t have experienced before flight. To familiarize themselves with the sounds of fueling and venting, the astronauts listened to recordings that were made during the buildup to last year’s uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon. They also listened to recordings of the noises they could expect to hear during re-entry — which Behnken said was “extremely helpful.”
  • In advance of the flight, neither NASA nor SpaceX said much about the toilet that’s installed aboard the Crew Dragon. But in response to a question today, Hurley said, “It works very similar to the one we were used to in the space shuttle, and it worked very well. We had no issues with it.” For what it’s worth, the space shuttle toilet made use of differential air pressure to suck away waste, but it was also important for astronauts to practice their aim.

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