April 27 at 3:52 am E.T. from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center
For their fourth launch of the Commercial Crew Program SpaceX and NASA have just begun the latest long duration spaceflight mission, sending four astronauts to the International Space Station. Commander Kjell Lindgren, pilot Robert “Bob” Hines, mission specialist 2 Jessica Watkins, and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti as mission specialist 1have all worked and trained together for months to prepare for this mission of around six months of scientific research in the orbital lab.
Lift off occurred at 3:52 am E.T. this morning as the astronauts riding along will spend about sixteen hours locked safely inside the first-time flying Crew Dragon, Freedom. They will dock with the space station around 8:00 pm E.T. tonight as the first operational crewed launch since all private Ax1 crewed flight to the orbital lab. That mission, Axiom-1 just returned to Earth this Monday after more than a week’s delay for undocking due to unfavorable landing site conditions along the Florida coast. Those delays caused the Crew-4 mission to keep pushing back as the two Dragon capsules needed to use the same docking port to remain fixed at the station. Incredibly Crew-4 has now launched just thirty-nine hours after the Axiom-1 crew has returned to our planets surface.
It seems there have been a lot of ‘firsts’ lately in spaceflight, today was no different. Jessica Watkins will become the first black woman to complete a long duration mission aboard the ISS. Yes, more than a dozen black Americans, including four women have traveled to space since Guion Bluford became the first to do so back in 1983, but no black woman has had to opportunity to live and work in space for an extended period of time. Watkins has had a long history with NASA, beginning her career as in an intern and having then held roles at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and the Jet Propulsion laboratory where she worked with the Curiosity rover currently on Mars.
Once the crew arrives, they will be greeted by the seven humans currently floating around our planet. Those include three NASA astronauts, one ESA astronaut, and three Russian cosmonauts already aboard the ISS. This will be followed by a five-day hand over period where the Crew-3 astronauts will help Crew-4 settle in and become acquainted with current scientific research currently underway. Once Crew-3 undocks from the station and returns to Earth the newest team up there will begin their part on all the science and research experiments, and maintenance duties required to live in space. This research will include studies on aging of immune systems in space, organic material concrete alternatives, and cardiorespiratory effects during and after long duration exposure to microgravity (space). And those are just a few of the over two-hundred experiments and technology demonstrations that NASA will tell us are taking place during this mission.
As mentioned before, the Dragon capsule is named Freedom, and is SpaceX’s fourth and possibly final human rated spacecraft. In tradition, the first crew to fly a new space capsule gets to name the vehicle. As a celebration to fundamental human rights, and also a celebration to the unfettered human spirit, along with a reflection of how far we’ve come is why the name Freedom was chosen. It also honors the Freedom 7 capsule that carried astronaut Alan Shepard to suborbital space as the first American to do so, back in May of 1961. “To see that first launch of Freedom 7, and to see where we are today is really a remarkable thing,” Commander Lindgren said. “So, we wanted to celebrate freedom for a new generation of space fliers.”
The capsule may be new, but the Falcon 9 first stage booster that flew the crew safely to orbit this morning was not. Today marks its fourth mission for SpaceX and the second time it has flown four astronauts on a mission to space. This booster is also one of the few now that has not flown a single Starlink mission. It started its career in the launching fleet with the CRS-22, then NASA certified the flown booster to carry human cargo, and it launched again for the Crew-3 mission in November of 2021. From there it went on to fly only one more time before today, that of the Turksat 5B mission which launched just over a month after the Crew-3 launch. There is also speculation that this booster will fly the CRS-25 mission to resupply the International Space Station in June of this year, or just a little more than a month from today.