SpaceX made history in May when it launched two people to space in SpaceX's Crew Dragon, the company's first crew since Elon Musk founded the rocket company 18 years ago.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have spent two months on the International Space Station and are scheduled to come home on Sunday, August 2.
Both men are military test pilots, engineers, and members of the same NASA astronaut class. They flew on two space-shuttle missions. They each also married a fellow astronaut and have a son.
Fellow astronauts describe Behnken and Hurley as deceptively intelligent and say they'd fly with either or both of them in a moment.
Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The ways NASA's astronaut office picks a crew from the members of its esteemed corps is something of a mystery.
But with the space agency's 2018 selection of Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to fly SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship, the process seems obvious in hindsight.
Each man graduated from the same crop of astronaut candidates in 2000. Each is an engineer and flew military aircraft. Each has flown to space three times aboard a space shuttle. Each married a fellow astronaut who has journeyed to space and fathered a son with her. Each spent years working with SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, to perfect the commercial spaceship they successfully rode to orbit.
And both shared the aspiration of every test pilot turned astronaut: the freak opportunity to fly a brand-new bird.
"If you gave us one thing that we could have put on our list of dream jobs that we would have gotten to have someday, it would have been to be aboard a new spacecraft and conduct a test mission," Behnken told reporters on May 20, before SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launched him and Hurley into orbit.
Since that launch, Behnken and Hurley have been living and conducting research on the International Space Station (ISS). They're slated to return to Earth on Sunday, a journey that involves a dangerous, fiery fall culminating in a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.
A high-stakes resurrection, 9 years in the making
Prior to launching Behnken and Hurley, SpaceX had launched 85 orbital-class Falcon 9 rockets but had never flown a human being. NASA, meanwhile, flew its last space shuttle in July 2011. Since then, it has had no means to reach orbit except by paying Russia for seats aboard its Soyuz spacecraft.
What led to Behnken and Hurley's SpaceX mission, called Demo-2, is a roughly $8 billion, 10-year public-private effort called the Commercial Crew Program. NASA awarded SpaceX about $3.14 billion of that to develop, build, and fly Crew Dragon.
The joining of forces was designed to help both entities overcome the obstacles to their own success. NASA got to groom the rocket company into a reliable commercial spaceflight provider that can sell the agency tickets to orbit for its astronauts. SpaceX, for its part, is now poised to finish the program with a human-rated spacecraft that will permit it to break open a new era of commercial spaceflight.
"Unfortunately we're in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Our country has been through a lot. But this is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again, and that is launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil," Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, said in May ahead of the launch. "We're transforming how we do spaceflight in general."
Essential to that transformation are the two people proving the gambit actually works.
SpaceX: They're 'badass' pilots, astronauts, and dads
Hurley, 53, grew up in New York near the Pennsylvania border, graduated at the top of his class in high school, and chased a civil engineering degree from Tulane University. By joining the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, he eventually would up as a test pilot in the Marine Corps with the call sign "Chunky" — and later a member of NASA's year 2000 astronaut class.
Behnken, a 49-year-old Missouri native, followed a similar path. He pursued a mechanical-engineering degree from Washington University in St. Louis, later picking up a master's degree and a doctorate in the topic from Caltech. Amid that academic work, he joined the US Air Force's ROTC program, which led him to become a test pilot and also a member of the same class of NASA astronaut candidates.
The men befriended each other in NASA's program and each flew two space-shuttle missions. Hurley's last mission, aboard space shuttle Atlantis in July 2011, was the final flight of NASA's program.
Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who joined SpaceX in 2011 to help develop its spaceships and is now an astronautics professor at the University of Southern California, says he knows both the men well. He even overlapped with Behnken by sharing the same doctoral adviser and trekking in nature with his future fellow astronaut.
"Doug likes to play a dumb pilot, but he's actually a really smart guy," Reisman told Business Insider. "And Bob's nickname is 'Dr. Bob.'"
Reisman added that Behnken "is very even-keeled" and quiet and "tries not to let his mouth get out in front of him."
Reisman shared a story about being in a SpaceX meeting with Behnken in which some employees began to talk to him "like a dumb pilot" him about vehicle-control theory — which the astronaut studied for his Ph.D.
"I'm sitting there laughing my my ass off because I know that he knows more about this stuff than they do," Reisman said.
Behnken and Hurley's experience, tenor, and attention to detail led NASA to pick the duo and two other astronauts in 2015 as part of a "Commercial Crew Cadre." The goal: Work with SpaceX and Boeing on new commercial spaceships. It also fast-tracked them for coveted spots on Crew Dragon.
During a press briefing on May 1, Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, described both men as "badass" dads, pilots, and astronauts.
When later asked what makes each other a badass — and while avoiding saying the expletive — Behnken said Hurley "is ready for anything all the time" and "always prepared."
"When you're going to fly into space on a test mission, you couldn't ask for a better person or a better type of individual to be there with you," Behnken said. "I'm just thankful that, doing something like this, I'm doing it with with Doug Hurley."
Hurley, for his part, praised Behnken's wit.
"There is no stone unturned, there's no way that he doesn't have every potential eventuality already thought about five times ahead of almost anybody else," Hurley said. "There's no question I can ask him that he doesn't already have probably the best answer for."
Both say their first real jobs were working for their dads, and it wasn't fun work, but it built them up.
"That's probably the hardest boss that you ever worked for is your father," Behnken said in a NASA video.
Leroy Chiao, who flew to space four times as a NASA astronaut before retiring, says the reputations of Behnken and Hurley precede them.
"I would certainly fly with them, either one of them or both of them, in a moment," Chiao told Business Insider.
'When you're watching, you're just a spectator'
Behnken and Hurley found a lot more as part of NASA's 2000 astronaut class than space shuttle flights: They also met their wives.
Astronaut Karen Nyberg married Hurley, and their son Jack is now 11. Megan McArthur, who helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009, married Behnken. The two have a son, Theo, who's 6 years old.
Earlier this month, NASA selected McArthur to pilot Crew Dragon's second official mission to the ISS — the current mission is considered a demo — called Crew-2, next spring. She previously flew in the space shuttle Atlantis.
In an interview with The Washington Post, McArthur expounded on the difficulty of seeing Behnken lift off.
"One of the hardest things to do is watch the person that you love launch into space," she said. "It's much harder than actually doing it yourself when you're in the rocket. You have the training. You're prepared for the mission. When you're watching, you're just a spectator. And no matter what happens, there's nothing you can do to contribute to the situation."
Still, having a spouse who understands what it takes to go to space has helped both couples parent their sons through the experience.
Behnken said delays in the Commercial Crew Program — the first launch was supposed to happen in late 2017 — have worked to their advantage in the parenting department.
"We've had a lot of the conversations over the years rather than having to have them all in the last couple of weeks," he told Business Insider. "It's kind of become more routine, if you will, in terms of expectation that I would eventually be flying on a SpaceX vehicle off to the Florida coast."
As the astronauts prepare to leave the ISS, Behnken offered some practical advice for his wife and others preparing for their own future missions: Pack smart.
"Just like any trip that you make, if you if you pack things appropriately, it can be a very fun trip," he told reporters on July 31. Poor packing, on the other hand, can "eat into your enjoyment," he added.
'That's how we like it to be'
In a press briefing following the launch of SpaceX's Demo-1 mission, which tested the Crew Dragon without any astronauts onboard in March, Behnken and Hurley joined Musk to answer questions. He noted that the astronauts had monitored launch data from the control room.
"I went over and asked them what what they thought," Musk said. "How do you feel about flying on it? Seems like you're feeling good about flying on it?"
"You guys told us what was going to happen, and that's what happened. That's how we like it to be," Behnken replied.
That mission was a success, and Demo-2 has gone smoothly so far as well. But Musk has said the upcoming conclusion is the most stressful phase for him. The Crew Dragon's heat shield will have to protect the hardware and astronauts against temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, while traveling at speeds up to 25 times the speed of sound.
"The part that I would worry most about would be reentry," he told Irene Klotz of Aviation Week ahead of the astronauts' launch.
Weather permitting, Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to undock from the space station at 7:34 p.m. ET on Saturday, then splash down on Sunday at 2:42 p.m., off the coast of Florida. You can watch NASA's live coverage of the journey here.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on May 27, 2020.
Do you have a story or inside information to share about the spaceflight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email at [email protected]
or a Twitter direct message at @davemosher. More secure communication options are listed here.SEE ALSO: 'We've grown up': SpaceX's failures have prepared the rocket company to launch NASA astronauts for the first time, says president Gwynne Shotwell
DON'T MISS: An astronaut who's about to launch on SpaceX's first human mission reveals what impresses him most about the company, and it's not the rockets or the spaceships
Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Elon Musk's multibillion-dollar Starship rocket could one day take people to the moon and Mars