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Astronauts land in Florida ahead of historic launch to space station

NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken (L) and Doug Hurley give the thumbs up after they arrive at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI
NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken (L) and Doug Hurley give the "thumbs up" after they arrive at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo

ORLANDO, Fla., May 20 (UPI) -- NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday to prepare for the historic return of crewed launches from U.S. soil.

Their space agency jet from Houston arrived shortly before 4 p.m. EDT.

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Behnken and Hurley, who both flew two previous space shuttle missions, are scheduled for a May 27 launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Bob Cabana, director of the space center, wore surgical face masks as they greeted the two space fliers, who are in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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"It feels so good to be here," Hurley said after stepping off the plane.

"I know times are tough right now," Bridenstine said during a press conference held on the space center's runway. "We just welcomed our astronauts and we couldn't shake [hands]. We had to wave from 6 feet away."

But he noted NASA was able to unite people around the world during the Cold War years. He said he hoped the mission would help people "talk about how bright things are going to be in the future."

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The astronauts thanked NASA, SpaceX and the public for their support. They will spend anywhere from one to four months in space, Hurley said.

"This is an awesome time to be an astronaut to get a new spacecraft to go and fly," Behnken said. "We view this as an opportunity, but also as a responsibility."

The astronauts will continue final preparations as they stay in the Astronaut Beach House at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with their families, who also have been quarantined.

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Hurley said he was amazed at how SpaceX and NASA adjusted astronaut training because of the pandemic. He and Behnken were traveling every week to SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., earlier this year as the pandemic reached America.

"We had to keep our teams safe, but also ourselves and our family," Hurley said.

It will be the first time NASA astronauts are launched from U.S. soil since the last shuttle mission in 2011. The United States has purchased seats on Russian Soyuz rockets launched from Kazakhstan since then.

The launch, set for 4:33 p.m. EDT, will also be the first time people have flown inside the Crew Dragon capsule made by Elon's Musk's SpaceX. It is due to arrive at the space station the day after launch, with docking planned at 11:29 a.m. EDT.

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Behnken, 49, and Hurley, 53, have been astronauts since their selection in 2000. They worked closely with SpaceX to develop the new spacecraft systems.

Behnken recently thanked his neighbors in the Houston area for posting countdown signs and positive messages about the launch. He posted on Twitter: "My neighborhood has a long history of @NASA_Astronauts as residents and finds a special way to take part in each mission."

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NASA has requested that spectators not travel to Florida to see the launch, and access to the space center is restricted to essential personnel only.

The launch and much of the flight to the station will be shown live on NASA TV and streamed online.

Behnken is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and was former chief of NASA's Astronaut Office.

Hailing from the St. Louis area, Behnken flew space shuttle missions STS-123 in 2008 and STS-130 in 2010, logging more than 37 hours during six spacewalks.

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Behnken holds a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from California Institute of Technology. He is married to fellow astronaut K. Meghan Arthur, and they have one child.

Hurley is a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. Before joining NASA he was a fighter pilot and test pilot, and was the first Marine pilot to fly the F/A‐18 E/F Super Hornet.

Hurley was the pilot on space shuttle missions STS‐127 in 2009 and the final shuttle mission, STS‐135, in 2011.

Hurley grew up in Apalachin, N.Y., and holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Tulane University. He is married to astronaut Karen Nyberg, and they have one child.

Astronauts make round trip to space station from U.S. soil

NASA astronaut Douglas Hurley (C) waves to onlookers as he boards a plane at Naval Air Station Pensacola to return him and NASA astronaut Robert Behnken home to Houston a few hours after the duo landed in their SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft off the coast of Pensacola, Fla,, on August 2, 2020. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo

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