SpaceX and Boeing competing to capture the American flag in space

A new space race is brewing in corporate America. SpaceX is scheduled to launch its 16th cargo supply mission to the International Space Station Wednesday. It wants to become the first company to carry astronauts to the station as soon as next summer.

But so does Boeing.

Both companies will operate competing space taxis for NASA, ending seven years of relying on Russia for rides to space.

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis roared toward the sky for the last time in 2011, it carried a special payload: a small American flag. And 250 miles above earth, shuttle commander Chris Ferguson led the ceremony to leave the flag on board the space station.

“This flag represents not just a symbol of our national pride and honor, but in this particular case, it represents a goal,” Ferguson said.

“The next astronaut that launched from American soil that docked at the space station would get to bring the flag home,” he added.

“Did you ever think when you left the flag that the person who might pick it up could be you?” CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann asked.

“Absolutely not,” Ferguson said. “I was absolutely certain that I was never going back to space again.”

But Ferguson will ride a rocket again – this time as a corporate astronaut for Boeing.

“I think the country has been missing something. But they don’t know they’ve been missing it. It’s been so long,” Ferguson said.

At Boeing’s assembly plant in Florida, Ferguson showed us the spacecraft he helped design: the Starliner.

When it’s ready, a capsule will carry Ferguson, and NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Eric Boe, on its first trip into orbit, flying there autonomously where it will dock with the space station. Ferguson could recover the same flag he left there seven years ago.

“What would that be like?” Strassmann asked.

“I think it’ll be anticlimactic. I think it will be largely symbolic in nature,” Ferguson said with a smile.

“Oh, come on.”

“OK. It’ll be cool,” Ferguson responded.

Very cool – but SpaceX, Boeing’s competitor, could beat him to it.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the first to fly SpaceX’s sleek new ship called Crew Dragon. We met Hurley at the Johnson Space Center in Houston at NASA’s training mockup of the space station. Hurley knows about the flag up there because he flew it there. He piloted that last shuttle flight.

“I didn’t think I was gonna fly again… let alone be potentially the guy that goes up and gets it. I mean, I still sometimes have a hard time believing it,” Hurley said.

“It’s sort of ironic I guess how this all played out. Nobody ever really saw this coming,” Ferguson said.

“So how important is it for you – and not Doug Hurley with SpaceX – to grab that flag?” Strassmann asked.

“I would never admit it to him but I would say it’s very important to me,” Ferguson said. “He knows it too.”

“I have no problem with a little healthy competition,” Hurley said. “It makes you better and it makes him better and it makes both companies better. And in the end, who benefits? The country. We get redundant access to space.”

Two astronauts who closed the last chapter of American spaceflight now find themselves competing to open the next one.

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