From trees to tags, NASA astronauts start traditions before first SpaceX launch

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (at left) and Doug Hurley give a thumbs up after arriving at the Launch and Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida ahead of launching on SpaceX's Demo-2 mission, May 20, 2020.  (Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA)

The first NASA astronauts set to launch from American soil in almost a decade are laying the foundation for the new preflight traditions that U.S. commercial spacecraft crews will follow as they prepare to lift off into space.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday (May 20), a week ahead of their scheduled launch on SpaceX's first Dragon spacecraft to fly with a crew to the International Space Station. Behnken and Hurley's Demo-2 mission will mark the resumption of U.S. orbital spaceflights since the end of NASA's space shuttle program in 2011.

"This is an awesome time to be an astronaut, with a new spacecraft to get a chance to go and fly," said Behnken, speaking to reporters at what was the shuttle landing facility (now Space Florida's Launch and Landing Facility). "We're thankful for that opportunity and we view it as an opportunity, but also a responsibility for the American people, for the SpaceX team [and] for all of NASA that has put this opportunity together and then trusted us with it."

Related: SpaceX's historic Demo-2 test flight with astronauts in photos 

"It's an incredible time for NASA, the space program, once again launching U.S. crews from Florida and hopefully just a week from about right now, which is incredible," Hurley said. "I happen to have been one of the four astronauts that landed here almost nine years ago in T-38 [jets] on the Fourth of July in 2011 to close out the space shuttle program."

"So it's incredibly humbling to be here to start out the next launch from the United States," said Hurley.

Should the Demo-2 test flight go as planned, NASA will certify SpaceX to begin flying regular missions to and from the International Space Station. Under its commercial crew program, the U.S. space agency will rely on SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to deliver astronauts to the orbiting laboratory, while encouraging expanded commercial activities in low Earth orbit.

As the first crew preparing to fly in this new era of U.S. commercial spaceflight, Behnken and Hurley have had the opportunity to choose what preflight traditions they wanted to observe.

"We feel somewhat responsible to continue some of these really neat traditions that both the [Russian] Soyuz crews have had for many years and the shuttle crews have had. And then maybe come up with a few of our own," said Hurley. "As we go through this journey, we will certainly share some more of those."

They began on Wednesday by revealing the rituals they performed before flying to Florida on a NASA Gulfstream jet.

NASA astronaut Bob Behnken planted a lemon tree at his home in Houston prior to leaving for Florida to launch on SpaceX's Demo-2 mission. He was inspired to start the tradition after planting a tree in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, as pictured in 2014. (Image credit: Bob Behnken/NASA)

"Back at my home in Houston, we took the opportunity to do something that's pretty common from an astronaut perspective around the world, which is to plant a tree," said Behnken. "I have done it in Baikonur — crews do that in Kazakhstan on their way to launch on the Soyuz — and I took the opportunity with my family to do a tree planting."

The Avenue of the Cosmonauts, as it is called at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, has trees planted for each person to launch on a Russian spacecraft, dating back to the very first human to fly into space, Soviet-era cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Behnken has not flown to space from the cosmodrome, but planted a tree in Karaganda, Kazakhstan when he was the chief of NASA's astronaut office.

"So not necessarily a public sort of event, but a personal sort," Behnken said, continuing to describe the tree he planted at his home. "My son will always have that lemon tree that he was a part of planting. Hopefully, it makes it through Houston's hot summer this year and becomes a tradition for some other folks as well."

Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken used a Demo-2 mission decal like the one pictured here to "tag" SpaceX's simulator in Houston, as a tradition symbolizing they had completed their training.  (Image credit: NASA)

For his part, Hurley adopted a tradition from his service as a test pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps.

"We used to do a little bit of what we call 'tagging' in the service," explained Hurley. "What it is, essentially, is putting a sticker on the simulator for your mission when you're complete with the training."

"And so yesterday, Bob and I put the Demo-2 sticker on the SpaceX simulator in Houston as kind of a continuing tradition," he said.

Over the course of the next week, Behnken and Hurley will have a chance to rehearse for their launch day, including riding in SpaceX's Tesla Model X out to the launchpad and climbing into their Dragon spacecraft atop the Falcon 9 rocket they will ride into orbit. They will also have an opportunity to spend some time with their families, extending another past astronaut tradition.

The Kennedy Space Center Conference Center, formerly known as the astronaut beach house, seen after its restoration in 2018. (Image credit: Kim Shiflett/NASA)

"I think Doug and I are really excited to spend some time out at the conference center, formerly known as the beach house," said Behnken, referring to a house that since 1963 has hosted astronauts prior to their launches, but more recently has been referred to as the Kennedy Space Center Conference Center. "Get a chance to go and visit that facility and maybe start a tradition or two out there with our families as a part of the new era that we're embarking on."

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Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.