Wed. Sep 28th, 2022

Shortly after sunrise on the morning of February 1, 2003, Doug Hurley waited on the long runway of the Kennedy Space Center for a vehicle that would never come.

Only recently graduating to become a full-fledged astronaut, one of Hurley’s first duties was serving as a “Cape Crusader” for the Corps, meaning he looked after the interests of the Florida Astronaut Office. This morning he was part of a small cadre of astronauts to greet seven returning crew members aboard the space shuttle Colombia

While he waited, Colombia broke into pieces as it passed Texas and other southern states of the US along its ground track to Florida. Hurley’s friends died when their spacecraft burned up and disintegrated during their return to Earth’s atmosphere. So from the start of his career, Doug Hurley understood very well the risks of the profession he had just started.

Cool, calm and confident

One of the most notable things about Wednesday’s countdown to an ultimately canceled Crew Dragon spacecraft launch was the confidence of Hurley, who will lead the mission, and his crewmate Bob Behnken. They’re friends, that helps. And both have been to space twice before, so they know the drill.

But beneath the pomp of Wednesday’s launch attempt — behind the gleaming Teslas and spiffy spacesuits — the reality is that climbing a rocket is more or less like climbing a bomb. The liquid oxygen and kerosene in the Falcon 9 rocket are pressurized fuels ready to explode. The magic of rocket engines is that they channel these fluids into controlled explosions for propulsion.

The Falcon 9 rocket exploded once in flight, in 2015 and again on the ground while refueling for a static fire test in 2016. Since then, the booster has flown more than 50 successful missions. But there are always risks in spaceflight, especially with a new vehicle — during launch, in space because of the risk of sudden depressurization or other hazards, and as Hurley discovered in 2003, during the return home.

When SpaceX founder Elon Musk met the families of Hurley and Behnken on Wednesday — each married to an accomplished astronaut and each has one son — his message to the boys was simple: SpaceX would do anything to bring their fathers home safely† But there are no guarantees in spaceflight.

a difficult time

Hurley joined NASA in 2000. He had spent about ten years as a Navy aviator and decorated Marine pilot. He wanted to fly the next thing, and that meant the space shuttle. He wasn’t sure what the future would hold when he arrived in July for training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. †Most astronauts, when you show up here, you’re just glad you’re on the ball club,” he said. “You work hard to be called into the big game, so to speak.”

It was not a particularly favorable time to be called up to the major leagues. NASA’s astronaut corps had swelled to 150 men and women by 2000, about two-thirds of whom had never flown into space. There was a long line to get to the track. Then, after Hurley graduated from “astronaut candidate” status, Colombia tragedy happened.

The space shuttle would not fly for more than two and a half years while NASA investigated the cause of the disaster (foam that fell from the vehicle’s external tank during takeoff). In addition, the Bush administration began to consider a future beyond the space shuttle and set an end date when the vehicle would stop flying by the end of the decade.

A younger Hurley on the center deck of the space shuttle on STS-127 in 2009.
enlarge A younger Hurley on the center deck of the space shuttle on STS-127 in 2009.

NASA

“All of us who had just come to NASA thought we might not even get a chance to fly the shuttle,” Hurley said. “It was a difficult time for several reasons.”

In the end, Hurley’s hard work impressed enough people to get two shuttle flights. He was the pilot on STS-127 in 2009, a complex 17-day mission to install a Japanese module in the International Space Station. Hurley deftly handled the demanding robotic operations in orbit. Then, to his surprise, he was selected as a pilot for STS-135 in 2011, the high-profile last mission before the shuttle’s retirement. After that mission, anyone going to the space station for years would do so from Kazakhstan.

Find a family

Even when Hurley was first introduced to space, he also fell in love with Karen Nyberg, a fellow member of the class of 2,000 astronauts. When he flew in 2011, Hurley and Nyberg only recently had a son, Jack. Nyberg was also training for her second mission into space — a nearly six-month undertaking that she would eventually undertake in 2013. Though he was only 44 years old when the space shuttle program ended, Hurley thought his time to space might be over.

“Knowing this was the last shuttle flight and knowing that Karen was flying less than two years later, I didn’t really have any expectations of flying again,” he said. “We had a new son. To end up here eight years later, it’s just amazing. None of this I predicted.”

Doug Hurley, left, speaks with his wife, Karen Nyberg, and son Jack on Wednesday.
enlarge Doug Hurley, left, speaks with his wife, Karen Nyberg, and son Jack on Wednesday.

NASA TV

When he looked so slick during Wednesday’s strike, it wasn’t just any act. Hurley is a cool character. After speaking to him several times over the years, I know that Hurley has confidence in SpaceX, with its rocket and spacecraft, and the NASA officials involved. (Jack is also a huge SpaceX fan). He knows how hard engineers from the company and NASA have worked to get him on top of the bomb. He understands the risks and accepts them. It’s his job.

He would also repeat the last two decades, even without the stuff to go to space.

“To be honest, this is where I met Karen,” he said of NASA. “We have our family. That in itself made these last 19 years incredibly rewarding, despite spaceflights.”

List image by SpaceX

By akfire1

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