Honored to speak with American Astronauts, @AstroBehnken, @Astro_Doug, and @Astro_SEAL today, with @SecondLady! America is leading in space once again and our Nation is grateful for the work they’re doing 250 miles above Earth at the @Space_Station! pic.twitter.com/DKbJ7ECQlnJune 17, 2020
A few weeks after watching NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley depart Earth in historic fashion, Vice President Mike Pence checked in to see how the spaceflyers are adjusting to life in orbit.
Pence and his wife, Karen, were present at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the May 30 launch of SpaceX's Demo-2 test flight, which sent Behnken and Hurley toward the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Crew Dragon capsule. (President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, made the trip to KSC for the occasion as well.)
Demo-2 is the first-ever crewed mission for Elon Musk's space company, and its liftoff atop a Falcon 9 rocket was the first orbital human spaceflight to depart from American soil since NASA grounded its space shuttle fleet in July 2011.
Behnken and Hurley arrived at the ISS on May 31, joining fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy — the commander of the orbiting lab's current Expedition 63 mission — and Russian cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. On Wednesday (June 17), Mike and Karen Pence held a video call with the three NASA spaceflyers, thanking them for their work and congratulating the Demo-2 crewmembers on their epic achievement.
"To Chris Cassidy, thank you for your great service and leadership," Vice President Pence said during the call, according to a transcript provided by his office. (The call was not broadcast on NASA TV.)
"And let me also specifically extend, to Bob and Doug, congratulations on making history as the first astronauts to launch on a commercially built and operated spacecraft and the first to launch on an American rocket, from American soil, in nearly 10 years," Pence added. "It's great to see you all. And congratulations on a successful mission."
"Thank you, Mr. Vice President," Hurley responded. "It's a huge honor for Bob and I to have been just a small part of the Commercial Crew Program launch of Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon to the International Space Station, going on three weeks ago. An incredible ride. An incredible rendezvous. And just glad to be up here now with Chris, getting the daily work done here on space station."
Cassidy, Behnken and Hurley all flew on space shuttle missions, and Pence asked the Demo-2 duo how a Falcon 9-Crew Dragon ride compares to one aboard the iconic NASA space plane.
"Well, sir, it was noticeably different," Hurley said. "The first thing that struck me was how you felt everything within the rocket quite a bit more than you did when you were in shuttle. The solid rocket boosters on shuttle made it very noisy, and it was a very rough ride for the first 2 1/2 minutes that we were under that — their power."
The Falcon 9 burned more smoothly, he added, so the Demo-2 ride to space wasn't nearly as rough.
"But you could just feel the air noise and the vibration so much clearer as we were ascending into orbit," Hurley said. "Also, the second stage was a quite a bit rougher ride than both of us expected. Not as rough as the space shuttle under the solid rocket boosters, but a pretty rough ride, relatively speaking. But it got us right where we needed to be. It got us right into the proper orbit."
Behnken said the biggest difference will probably come on the return home. The space shuttle orbiters glided down for runway landings, but Crew Dragon splashes down in the ocean, like NASA's old Apollo capsules did.
"The space shuttle was a pretty gentle ride back to our home planet, back to Kennedy Space Center. It was a smooth ride," Behnken said. "We're expecting a little bit different experience with the parachutes and with the splashdown in the ocean."
Karen Pence bent the astronauts' ears as well. She congratulated Behnken and Hurley for the Demo-2 success so far and for likely setting a sequins-in-space record with the mission's zero-g indicator, a plush dinosaur named Tremor chosen for the job by the two astronauts' sons. The Second Lady also asked the Demo-2 crewmates what advice they'd give to young people who are interested in growing up to be astronauts, engineers or space scientists.
"Well, I think part of it has to be passion," Behnken said. "You know, you're never going to do great work if you're not passionate about it. So, I think that's what drives us to an extent, too. We're very passionate about engineering, science and math, space. We were passionate about flying vehicles. We were passionate about testing vehicles and [that] kind of led us down this path. It certainly doesn’t have to be this exact path. But if you have the passion, I just believe that, as a young child, if you believe strongly in something, you'll excel at it if you're passionate."
Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner are scheduled to return to Earth in October, aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that carried them up to orbit. Behnken and Hurley will come home sooner than that, though how much sooner is unclear at the moment. NASA officials have not yet announced an end date for the Demo-2 mission, which will last a maximum of four months from launch to splashdown.
If all continues to go well with Demo-2, SpaceX will be clear to start flying NASA astronauts on operational missions to and from the ISS using Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9. The company holds a contract to complete at least six such flights, the first of which could launch as early as Aug. 30.
Vice President Pence is deeply involved in the U.S. space program. He chairs the policy-steering National Space Council (NSC), which President Donald Trump reinstated in 2017. The NSC had last been active in the early 1990s, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
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Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.