The Unique Friendship Between Astronauts

“Spaceflight makes you try to be a little bit more understanding, a little bit nicer, and try to see other points of view. Because all of humanity is right down there and you’re looking at it.”

An illustration of two astronauts in space.

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two NASA astronauts who have been friends since they were in the same training class. Together, they’ve weathered lows (both were present for the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003) and highs (they were in each other’s weddings), and now they’re preparing to fly to space together for the first time, as the first astronauts aboard one of SpaceX’s commercial rockets. They will ride inside the company's Crew Dragon capsule; no launch date has been set yet.

The Friends:

Bob Behnken, 49, a NASA astronaut and Air Force colonel who lives in Houston, Texas
Doug Hurley, 52, a NASA astronaut and retired Marine Corps colonel who lives in Houston, Texas

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

Julie Beck: How did your friendship develop alongside your astronaut careers?

Bob Behnken: We came from military backgrounds. I'm a flight test engineer. Doug is a pilot, which is kind of a communal activity. Doug and I came to Houston in the 2000 class of astronauts. There were a total of 17 of us, and for about two years we were pretty tightly scheduled.

Doug Hurley: We spent a lot of time together.

Bob: Multiple hours every day. We were learning the same things at the same time, and you build unique bonds with people as you go through that. For instance, the first time you do a cross-country [flight] in a NASA T-38 airplane, you do that together.

Doug: When you first show up, you're called an astronaut candidate, or an ASCAN. During those roughly two years of ASCAN training, Bob and I got pretty close. It's just like anything else—you gravitate to certain people. And we flew a lot together in T-38s.

Once we were done with our initial astronaut-candidate training, we went off into the astronaut office, which supported several different programs. At that time, we had the Space Shuttle program. We were both assigned to the same job—Cape Crusaders, which meant we would spend a lot of time in Florida supporting shuttle countdown tests and shuttle launches. We spent a whole bunch of time together, and I got to the point where I thought, Hey, maybe this guy isn't so bad. In some ways it was a little bit forced. But we enjoyed each other's company. And we were really lucky because we actually spent time in the space shuttles, configuring them for flight and ultimately getting to strap the crews in before they launched. It was a great job.

Bob: We were just getting started, and it’s Bob and Doug turned loose on operating the space shuttle. You couldn't really do it by yourself, and there's a sense of trust that's kind of forced upon you—forced is the wrong word. But we were in a situation where we had to build a pretty strong relationship.

Doug and I were down at Kennedy and we lost a space shuttle. We were waiting on the end of the runway for it to come in. We went through that experience together, of losing the spacecraft and losing a crew. Nobody was in the same place that we were for that mission other than the two of us.

Beck: Was that the Columbia in 2003?

Bob: Yes. Correct.

Beck: Were you the only ones on that particular job that day or were there others with you?

Bob: On landing day, we were the two to catch the Columbia coming back. We would have gone in, met the crew, and got them out. That was our shift. It was actually Doug's lead. I was just down there to be his assistant.

Doug: We were the only two people on the runway. There's a whole convoy of vehicles and support people that are there to catch a space shuttle when it lands. Of course, when that didn't happen, Bob and I and some of the other more senior astronaut management types all went back to crew quarters. They also took the families of the astronauts back to crew quarters. We were all there together.

That was tough to deal with, but there was stuff to be done. We had to get a plan together to get the families back to Houston. They were staying down in Florida. Bob and I eventually had to pack everybody's stuff and get it ready to go. We flew back together to Houston, and the world knew by then what had happened. And then of course the funerals, the memorials, and the president coming to the Johnson Space Center—that first six months to a year were pretty challenging. We both did different things to support the recovery efforts. It was a long process to get through it.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley
Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley (right) in a mock-up of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. (Courtesy of NASA)

Bob: I brought that up as an example to cover the spectrum [of our friendship]. I’ve seen Doug’s behavior at my wedding, I've seen Doug's behavior in an airplane, and we’ve worked together dealing with the aftermath of the worst thing you can imagine happening in our career field. I can predict his actions. He can predict mine. I can predict what's going to make him happy or sad. It'd be great if it was all positives that we've lived through together, but those other things we've had to overcome together make our relationship strong.

Beck: To talk about one of the happy things—you were both in each other's weddings, right?

Bob: Doug was the best man at my wedding. My wife was also in the astronaut class of 2000.

Doug: So was mine.

Bob: A man named Duane Ross was the lead for the astronaut selection process. In some sense, he picked my spouse for me; he picked my friends for me.

Doug: We owe him a lot.

Bob: He did a great job.

Doug: My wedding was fairly quick. We were going to launch on [a space-shuttle mission], then we scrubbed three times and had a month off, so we had a quick justice-of-the-peace wedding here in Houston. It wasn't quite as much fun as Bob and Megan's wedding.

Bob: That’s one of the things that is unique in our relationships: We have spouses that have the same job. If you even just look at our wedding planning, my wife and I were balancing space flights and a lot of stuff going on back here in Houston. Her flight got delayed a little bit and we found a window where we could get out to San Diego and have our wedding.

Doug and Karen have to work their personal life around their space flights. And same thing for us. I know what he's going through. We both have sons in elementary school; we're balancing the same challenges. That lets us predict how to best support each other as we work through pulling off our next space flight.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley
Bob and Doug suit up for a training exercise. (Courtesy of NASA)

Beck: In both your friendship and in your marriages, do you try to keep some separation between work and the relationship or is it all jumbled up together?

Doug: When we first got here—of course at that point we weren't married to Megan and Karen—it seemed a lot more jumbled. Now, being fathers … that certainly gives you perspective. Also having kids when you're a little bit older, it becomes even that much more important to you. I appreciate it more now than I might've in my 20s and 30s. I certainly don't want to speak for Bob or Megan or Karen, but I think we were very, very hyper-focused to get to where we got [in our careers]. But now, being married with young children, there is a little bit more of a separation than there probably was 10 years ago.

Bob: I think it is important to separate your family activities from your work activities. We're not celebrities, but we have some kind of notoriety, I guess. I don't want to drag my family into that. If I have to do a press conference or go see a rocket launch, my intent is to not necessarily turn it into an interview opportunity for my son, until he gets older and decides that's what he wants to do.

But some parts are jumbled. There are things that I can't do if my wife's not in Houston. When I wrap up work today [has to be coordinated with] when she wraps up today, so that we can catch our kindergartener at the end of the day. We don't think of it as jumbled. We think of it as a well-oiled machine.

Beck: Between the space-shuttle job you had when you were first starting out and now, did you work together on anything in the meantime?

Bob: We both flew a couple of shuttle missions, [but not together]. We kind of went our separate paths. And then we took leadership responsibilities inside the astronaut office. In those leadership roles we definitely had to work together, but not in the same way. We would be across the table at different meetings. I would tell him ahead of time, “Hey, I'm going to throw this out there today. Be prepared, or back me up.”

Beck: Now you’re preparing to fly on the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft—this is going to be your first time actually flying together?

Bob: At least above 42,000 feet.

Beck: Can you give me a little background on the mission and how you’re preparing for it?

Doug: A little over four years ago, we were selected, along with other NASA astronauts, to participate in the test flights for commercial crew vehicles. Obviously, it was a pretty awesome opportunity to be on the ground floor of testing a new space vehicle, since NASA hadn't done one in [decades]. A little over a year ago they did the formal selection for who was going to fly which vehicle. Bob and I were lucky enough to be selected together to do the test flight of the SpaceX vehicle, the Crew Dragon. As we get closer to launch, things in the last year have actually been pretty hectic. We’ve been spending increasing amounts of time in California, because that’s where most of the work is being done for Dragon.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley
Bob and Doug stand in front of the SpaceX Dragon Commercial Crew vehicle mock up. (Courtesy of NASA)

Bob: We spend a couple of days every week somewhere in Florida or California, evaluating the final designs. We’re not the beneficiaries of a super-formal training program—it's kind of being developed as we go.

Beck: Your flight is the test flight—you're basically just going to go up to the Space Station and come back?

Bob: Our mission is a test flight that checks out the vehicle in preparation for a longer-duration flight that follows soon after. When they go, they won’t hopefully have to do a lot of care and feeding of the Dragon capsule because anything that was problematic we'll have identified and fixed.

Beck: Have you planned out your snacks for the trip?

Doug: We have to pick out menus months in advance. I think we have our menus picked out already.

Bob: Some of the things you do get to pick yourself. But we're going to get some surprises when we're in orbit, because they let your family or friends put together a care package for you. I'm sure that we'll have some snacks and other things in it for us. We'll get some surprises.

One funny story: My wife took my last name when we got married, at least as far as NASA paperwork goes. I got my menu for what I was going to eat onboard the Dragon capsule a little while back, and I was like, I don't recognize any of this food. I'm pretty sure I don't like that, or that, or that. But maybe that's what I’ve got to eat because of constraints. I reached out to the food folks and said, “Hey, what's going on here? I didn't pick any of these choices.” It turned out it was my wife's list of her favorite choices. The funny part is that I think if I had gotten Doug's choices, I wouldn't have even noticed the difference.

Doug: I would've had to share my food.

Beck: Sorry to get a little bit dark for a second, and hopefully this would never happen, but considering that you were witnesses to the Columbia explosion and then the explosion that happened on one of the Dragon tests: Have you two ever had a frank conversation about the possibility of dying together on a mission?

Bob: We have those discussions, but we really focus on how to prevent these sorts of things from happening. We do talk about life insurance. I had to sort out the best life-insurance policy for my family recently. You get support from people inside the astronaut office, to work with your family or help them out should something happen. If we weren't flying on the same spacecraft, Doug and I would probably be at the top of each other's lists for dealing with anything that happened for the other person's family.

Doug: In the case of what happened with SpaceX, you're almost thankful that it happened when it did, because nobody got hurt, nobody was onboard, and they are able to take a step back and figure out: Is it something we were doing operationally? Is it something in the design of the vehicle? When it does happen, it's not always the worst thing in the world. Our job is to make sure that, if A goes bad, we still have B, C, and D options to do before it gets really bad.

Beck: Do you feel responsible for each other's lives? And is that a different dynamic than you have with friends that you don't go into these kinds of situations with?

Bob: We know it's real. We've been at the other end of a runway when a spaceship didn't come back. And I know how Doug is going to behave in those sorts of situations. It’s very subtle, whether it's a hand signal or a look or both of our physical postures change a little bit. There are places that I would go with Doug that I would not go with some of my other friends—that's probably the best way to describe it—whether it's a nightclub in New Orleans or some other situation.

Beck: Nothing more tactical than a nightclub in New Orleans.

Bob: That was a while ago.

Doug: It could be dangerous, and you should be prepared and know who's got your back if you find yourself in that situation.

Beck: Do you think that going to space has changed you in ways that affect your relationships?

Bob: It definitely changes your perspective to go into space. I think that is a little bit different for each person. But one thing that's super common is having a bigger perspective when you come back. Coming out of a military culture, I know all the military niceties about who's a sir and who's a ma’am and who you can be on a first-name basis with. Being an astronaut is kind of weird because you transcend a lot of those levels. You call the administrator by their first name, or you meet the president. You have a sense of a relationship with a wide range of people, whether it's the person who's tightening the bolts on your spaceship, all the way to the president or to the CEO of a company. They all want to know you and be a part of where you go.

The excitement that people from all nationalities have when they come to talk to you, the number of people you can reach with the thing that you've done, gives you a very different perspective about what's important and what's not important. You can just kind of let things go because they don’t matter. This didn't go well today, but I flew in space yesterday.

Doug: It makes you get out of your own life and appreciate the bigger picture, appreciate what we have as a species on this planet. When you get up there and look back at the Earth, I think there isn't anybody who that hasn't changed.

[Spaceflight makes you] try to be a little bit more understanding, a little bit nicer, and try to see other points of view. Because all of humanity is right down there and you're looking at it. It really does change you, and hopefully for the better. People ask us about commercialization of space, and I firmly believe that the more people we can get to go into space, the better off the planet's going to be.

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