NASA astronauts arrive at launch site for historic SpaceX test flight

Two veteran NASA astronauts arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida today (May 20) ahead of a much-anticipated test flight on a SpaceX spaceship next week.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the crew of the first piloted SpaceX Crew Dragon launch for NASA, are scheduled to launch May 27 on a trip to the International Space Station. To gear up for that mission, called Demo-2, the astronauts flew to KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility from the Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base near Houston, Texas this afternoon. 

The pair will blast off in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the historic Launch Pad 39A as part of the Demo-2 mission. Liftoff is set for 4:33 p.m. EDT (2033 GMT).

Related: How SpaceX's Demo-2 mission works in 13 steps
In photos:
SpaceX's Demo-2 Crew Dragon test flight with astronauts

It's a homecoming of sorts for both astronauts, perhaps most so for Hurley. He touched down at this very same location on July 4, 2011, as he and three crewmates prepared to fly the final mission of NASA's space shuttle program. The upcoming test mission will be the first crewed launch from Florida since that final shuttle launch nearly a decade ago. 

The Demo-2 crew were welcomed after landing by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Bob Cabana, the director of Kennedy Space Center. "I can't tell you how great it is to welcome Bob and Doug here for this historic mission," Cabana said in a news conference immediately following the crew's arrival. "This is a whole new way of sending people to space … this really is monumental."

But, as Bridenstine pointed out during soonafter, the officials didn't shake hands with the astronauts. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has reshaped how NASA prepares for human spaceflight. Both Bridenstine and Cabana wore masks and kept a distance to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus

"We are on the cusp of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil yet again," Bridenstine said. "This is a tough time in American history, it is a tough time in world history," he added, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic that necessitated his own distance from the astronauts.

But tough times are hardly new for NASA milestones, Bridenstine added.

"In the 1960s, we had a war raging in Vietnam, we had protests, we had civil rights abuses," he said, hearkening back to the early moon launches of the Apollo program. "We had division in this country the likes of which were never seen before. And at the same time, NASA was able to unite not just the United States of America, but we were able to unite the world."

Bridenstine noted the importance of the individual astronauts in the mission as well. "You really are a bright light for all of America right now," he told Behnken and Hurley. "Thank you so much for all you've done and all you're about to do."

The astronauts were just as thrilled about their mission as Bridenstine. 

"Both Doug and I are really excited to do be here this is an awesome time to be an astronaut with a new spacecraft to get a chance to go and fly," Behnken said.  "We view it as an opportunity, but also a responsibility for the American people, for the SpaceX team, for all of NASA that put this opportunity together and then trusted us with it."

Hurley also shared his anticipation one week ahead of launch. 

"It's an incredible honor to be back here at Kennedy Space Center," he said, looking back on the last time he arrived for a mission at Kennedy, which was the last shuttle mission in 2011. "It's incredibly humbling to be here to start out the next launch from the United States."

Related: You can dock a SpaceX Crew Dragon in this free simulator 

Hurley's wife, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, shared the astronauts' departure from Texas and journey to Florida on Twitter

"It is a special moment when the crew departs Ellington Field in Houston, heading to @NASAKennedy for the final week countdown to launch. We are so proud of @Astro_Doug and happy we could see him off. #LaunchAmerica," she wrote. (Behnken is also married to a NASA astronaut, Megan McArthur.) 

Demo-2 will mark the first time astronauts have launched to the space station on a U.S. commercial vehicle. Since the space shuttles retired in 2011, astronauts have flown to and from the space station on Russian Soyuz capsules, launching from Kazakhstan. 

While the Crew Dragon capsule can fit four passengers, only the two astronauts will be on board during this test mission.

If Demo-2 is successful, SpaceX will follow with the launch of the Crew-1 mission, which will carry NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Sôichi Noguchi to the space station. 

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.