SpaceX is just days from winning a high-stakes game of capture the flag in space that Barack Obama started almost 9 years ago

  • SpaceX is poised to win a high-stakes game of capture the flag as astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley prepare to return to Earth this weekend.
  • President Barack Obama started the competition nine years ago, when his administration funded a public-private partnership program in which NASA would work with companies to send humans to space.
  • SpaceX beat the other company in the competition, Boeing, to its first crewed launch.
  • The American flag flew on the first space shuttle and has stayed on the International Space Station since the shuttles stopped launching in 2011, waiting for the first commercial spaceship crew to claim it.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley return to Earth on SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship, they'll be carrying an American flag with even more symbolism than usual.

The trophy in question is a flag that flew on the first space shuttle mission. It was left on the ISS by the crew of NASA's final space shuttle flight in 2011, of which Hurley was a member. The idea was that the next astronauts to launch on an American spacecraft from US soil would return the flag to Earth.

But at that time, it wasn't yet clear which company would get there first, or which astronauts would be selected for that mission.

"I understand it's going to be sort of like a capture-the-flag moment here for commercial spaceflight. So good luck to whoever grabs that flag," President Barack Obama said on a phone call with Hurley and his colleagues in 2011.

SpaceX launched Behnken and Hurley toward the International Space Station in May, marking the first time humans have ever flown a commercial spacecraft to orbit. They docked to the ISS, then climbed through the hatch into the football-field-sized floating laboratory.

In that moment, they put Elon Musk's rocket company on the cusp of winning the nine-year-long game of capture the flag.

Soon after, Hurley held the flag up to NASA's live broadcast cameras beside Behnken and astronaut Chris Cassidy.

"Chris had it right on the hatch where we left it nine years ago," Hurley said. "He's got a note: 'Do not forget to take with Crew Dragon.'"

Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to undock from the space station at 7:34 p.m. ET on Saturday, then begin a fiery, high-speed journey through Earth's atmosphere. Assuming all goes according to plan, they'll splash down on Sunday at 2:42 p.m., off the coast of Florida. At that point, SpaceX will have successfully captured the flag. You can watch NASA's live coverage of the return flight here.

"The race isn't over until it's over," Behnken told reporters ahead of the May launch.

The world's first commercial spaceflight

The Demo-2 mission is the product of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership that President Barack Obama started in 2011. The aim was to restore the US's ability to launch its own astronauts into space after the space shuttle program ended. 

Both SpaceX and Boeing made it through the rigorous reviews and testing required by NASA. The space agency has contributed more than $3.1 billion of funding to SpaceX in the nearly decade-long partnership. Boeing has received about $4.8 billion in contracts. But software issues plagued Boeing's uncrewed test flight to the space station, triggering a series of required reviews and a forthcoming re-do mission before the company can launch astronauts.

So SpaceX accomplished its first crewed flight first.

If all goes well this weekend, NASA hopes to regularly cart astronauts to and from the station on the Crew Dragon.

"We really are focused on making sure that we … accomplish the ultimate mission, which isn't winning against Boeing. It's providing this capability to the International Space Station so that we can start rotating crews from American soil," Behnken said before the May launch.

For Hurley, the flag symbolizes that long journey and the dawning new era of commercial spaceflight.

"You can bet we will take it with us when we depart back to Earth," Hurley said as he presented the flag. "The important point is, as I said before, just returning launch capability to the United States to and from the International Space Station. That's what this flag really means."

Susie Neilson contributed reporting for this story. 

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on June 2, 2020.


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