By Charles Pope, Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
/ Published May 21, 2020
Marking a milestone in America’s renewed ambitions for space, Department of the Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond, on May 21, spoke with NASA astronaut, Bob Behnken, whose mission will lift into orbit from U.S. soil for the first time in nine years.
The conversation with Behnken, an Air Force colonel, came six days before the scheduled May 27 launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft in Florida. The launch and the mission to the International Space Station (ISS) are significant because it is the first time since the space shuttle was retired in 2011 that a U.S.-manufactured rocket rising from a U.S. spaceport is taking astronauts into space.
“Colonel, we are thrilled with your upcoming launch. Everybody is thrilled,” Barrett said. “America is thrilled for you to be one of the American representatives when for the first time since 2011 we return to space from American soil, on the top of an American rocket, in an American capsule.”
Raymond delivered a similar message. “I’ll tell you, we’re all excited for your upcoming mission,” he said. “It’s going to be great to have an Airman on that first rocket launch and an Airman on the ISS. We’re cheering for you.”
The mission breaks NASA’s reliance on Russian Soyuz capsules launched from Kazakhstan to send U.S. astronauts into orbit. Additionally, the launch is important because it is the final major step before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon for operational, long-duration missions to the space station.
The May 27 mission, dubbed “Launch America,” has attracted heightened attention because it symbolizes what the White House and other senior government leaders say is a new commitment to space, space exploration and ensuring free and continued access. While the launch site and rocket are new, the destination is not. Behnken and his partner, NASA astronaut, Doug Hurley, will dock at the ISS for an extended stay.
Behnken told Barrett and Raymond that the mission will last longer than originally planned and could include as many as five spacewalks to replace aging batteries and to refurbish parts of the space station.
“We’ve had some interesting twists and turns,” he told Barrett and Raymond. “Our mission was originally a test mission exclusively focused on a week or a week and a half or so to make sure we achieve the test objectives and get this flight certified for the next set of crews so they would do a long duration mission.”
Behnken said it doesn’t matter the mission’s ultimate duration and functions. “It’s an exciting time and, as an astronaut who flew previously from the Florida coast (on the space shuttle), I’m excited for it to be happening again and to be a small part of making it a successful mission,” he said.
More broadly, according to federal officials and space advocates, the May 27 mission provides tangible evidence of the United States’ renewed and reoriented focus on space. These efforts include formally creating the Space Force in December 2019 as the first new-and-independent branch of the military since 1947.
Raymond and Barrett touched on those twin priorities by noting they had recently visited Cape Canaveral in Florida for the launch of the X-37B, a reusable military space plane.
Both of those priorities require freedom to operate and access space, which is a large reason for the Space Force’s presence, and for domestic-launch capabilities to send people and equipment into orbit. It also includes a formal mandate from the White House that the United States will be returning humans to the moon by 2024 and then to Mars.
The National Space Council was created by the White House to coordinate at a high level the civilian efforts to return more fully to space.
“I had the great privilege of being at the Air Force Academy not long ago, when we commissioned the very first class of officers to the United States Space Force. And that, combined with the return of American leadership in human space exploration makes this an extraordinarily exciting time,” Vice President Mike Pence said during the space council’s meeting, May 19.
All of this is occurring as space is becoming more crowded and contested at the same time its importance in everyday life expands. Unlike previous contests in which the United States and Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union) were alone in space, today dozens of nations are active, including Russia, China, India and others.
Barrett commended the astronaut on his service to the Air Force and the nation.
“We are endlessly proud of you and I have to confess, maybe just a little bit envious as well,” she told Behnken. “We know you’re going to make your United States Air Force, United States Space Force, NASA and your country very, very proud.”