Update: Astronaut Eric Boe was scheduled to travel to the International Space Station on the Boeing Starliner test flight. He was pulled from the flight for medical reasons. Astronaut Mike Fincke is set to take his place.
But that will soon change. NASA plans to return manned space station launches to American soil. And the government agency is going to have help. NASA has paired with two companies — Boeing and SpaceX — to carry its crews into space.
The companies are still working on the rockets, but they are aiming to take off at the end of the year. NASA has chosen four astronauts — all of whom have been to the space station — to fly on those missions. The astronauts will soon find out which two will go on which rocket, and they will begin special training.
Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport, who covers the space industry, talked with the four recently at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and asked them a few questions for KidsPost.
So meet Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams. But stay tuned. We’ll be checking in with them in the coming months as they prepare to take this new path to the International Space Station.
Question and Answer
Q: Do you remember Apollo or early space shuttle missions?
Robert Behnken: I really have no memories of the Apollo program. . . . I do remember the shuttle program pretty clearly. I do remember actually seeing a space shuttle make the transit across the country during a stopover at Scott Air Force Base, which was in Belleville, Illinois. I grew up [nearby] in St. Louis. . . . My dad took me over there, and we used a telephoto lens on a camera to take some photos of a space shuttle and get to see it with my own eyes, which was a neat thing to do.
Eric Boe: I was about 5 at the time when my parents came in and said, “Come watch this,” and it was the moon landing in black and white.
Sunita Williams: I was old enough to be in our basement with our black-and-white TV to see, you know, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon and thought, “Wow, that’s really cool. That’s amazing, spectacular.” I was only 4 years old at the time but pretty, pretty amazing.
Q: How are day-to-day things more difficult in space?
Behnken: When you are in space, everything takes a different level of planning. It can be difficult to even find things that you’ve stuffed in a bag to do an activity with. And so whenever you march down a path in space where you think about I’m going to go do maintenance on this specific thing, I need a nice work area. I need a place to put all my stuff. I have to think about all those things before I even get started.
Q: Most kids today don’t remember shuttle launches. Why would the Boeing and SpaceX missions inspire them as the shuttle did in its day?
Douglas Hurley: They can realize “maybe that’s something I could do some day.” By the time children of today are old enough to potentially be astronauts, who knows where we might be going? We might have a moon base by then. We may be already on our way to Mars. And you see with children all the time how excited they are about Mars and about the moon, and hopefully they’ll be the ones that get to go do it.
Boe: Being able to watch it live is always an amazing thing. . . . For kids it’s just one of those things that will inspire them and they’ll be people just like I was when I was a little kid and I watched the moon landing. Dreaming about the opportunity . . . to go in space.
Wiliams: I think that it will show people that we can do this again. You can come to Florida and see a launch. . . . It’s not like these grand plans from different countries like Russia and the United States. [Boeing and SpaceX] are companies that people are very used to seeing. . . . I think it brings it a little bit closer to home that they are part of it. . . . I really hope that these commercial crew launches really get people into the idea that they are part of space travel and space exploration.
Q: What are you looking forward to most about returning to space in the space station?
Behnken: You know I’m really looking forward to taking advantage again of the big open areas on board the space station. I do have some things that I don’t want to share because I want to surprise my son with them, but I have some things that I want to do or have him see me do in those big areas on board the space station — you know flips and bubbles and eating M&M’s like Pac-Man across the space station. I want to do all those things, but I want to do them just for my son.
Boe: What I’m looking forward to most and returning to space is being in a completely different spaceship, so that’ll be neat. . . . And you know I’ve flown twice before. The first flight, [I] missed a lot of things just because you’re busy doing your job . . . . So second flight I picked up a lot of details. So I think the third flight not only will I get to see a new spaceship, but I’ll appreciate just being able to pick up a lot of the things that I missed on the first two flights.
Hurley: I think it’s the sights [and] the smells looking out the cupola again. [The cupola is a large round window on the station that provides amazing views of Earth.] Hopefully this flight [I’ll be] getting a little more time to actually do some of that stuff. I have no idea if that’s the case, but I hope so. . . . And then just being able to get this accomplished for the country. It’s important. . . . It has been pushing seven years now that we haven’t had this launch capability in the United States.
Q: Have you requested any changes or upgrades on the new spacecraft that you wish you’d had on shuttle or Soyuz?
Williams: These new spacecraft have taken advantage of technology advances in the last 10, 20 years, and that’s making these spacecraft smarter and probably safer and a little bit more automated, where the people inside don’t have to be looking at every little thing. . . . So the situational awareness as well as the safety of these spacecraft I think is absolutely more than it was in the past, and that’s because of technology advances in the last 20 years or so. So I’m thinking these spacecraft are going to be pretty awesome.
For more on the astronauts, read Christian Davenport’s longer story at wapo.st/unsungastronauts.