NASA and SpaceX are pushing the Crew-4 mission back one day because of a jam-packed launch schedule, officials announced today (March 31).
The upcoming SpaceX Crew-4 mission is set to fly a crew of three NASA astronauts and one European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut to the International Space Station, where they will live and work in orbit around Earth. However, as Steve Stich, the manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program at the agency's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Texas shared during a news conference today, the launch for Crew-4 has been moved from April 19 to April 20.
This will allow more time between this mission and Axiom Space's Ax-1 mission, which will launch a private astronaut crew to the station aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule on April 6, Stich said.
"Because of the complexity of the Axiom mission and where we're at with Crew-4 preparations," Stich said during the news conference, "we are going to adjust the launch date a little bit for Crew-4."
"We are in the midst of an extremely busy spring," Dana Weigel, deputy manager for NASA's International Space Station program at JSC, added during the same news conference.
Stich added that, on April 20, they expect Crew-4 to lift off at 6:37 a.m. ET (1037 GMT), with docking likely taking place around 6 a.m. ET (1000 GMT) on April 21. The crew will launch from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Crew-4 will fly NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren (who's the mission commander), Bob Hines (pilot) and Jessica Watkins (mission specialist) as well as Italian ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti (mission specialist).
This will be the second spaceflight for Cristoforetti and Lindgren and the first for Watkins and Hines. The crew will fly aboard a brand-new Dragon capsule, the fourth SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle, which the crew has named Freedom. Lindgren also noted, during a news conference with the mission's crew that occurred later today, that the mission patch, which features a dragonfly, was designed by his daughter.
With this mission, Watkins will become the first Black woman to conduct a long-duration spaceflight.
"This is certainly an important milestone, I think both for our agency and for the country," Watkins said during the crew news conference. " I think it's really just a tribute to the legacy of the Black women astronauts who have come before me, as well as to the exciting future ahead."
This is likely to be the last new Dragon built, as SpaceX plans for each Dragon to fly about five times, totaling 20 missions. (SpaceX also has several Dragon vehicles outfitted for robotic cargo transport.) The plan is to have these vehicles last for the duration of the International Space Station, which is expected to retire in 2030, Jessica Jensen, vice president of customer operations and integration at SpaceX, said during today's news conference.
"As of now, we're planning to make sure our number one priority is make sure that we keep providing the crew and cargo services that the space station needs. That's our main priority," Jensen told Space.com. However, she added, as time goes on and after the space station retires, they will continue to evaluate free-flying missions, asking, "Should that be a Dragon mission? Or would that be a Starship mission?"
Starship is the giant vehicle that SpaceX is developing to take people and cargo to the moon, Mars and other distant destinations.
Crew-4 will meet up with a gaggle of astronauts already on the station. During the five-day handover period that will take place after their arrival on station, there will be 11 crew members on board — six Americans, three Russians, one German astronaut and one Italian astronaut, Jensen shared today.
"The crew on board is ready to go, they're ready to welcome new visitors," Jensen said. After the short handover period on station, the four Crew-3 astronauts currently on the orbiting lab — NASA's Kayla Barron, Raja Chari and Thomas Marshburn and ESA's Matthias Maurer — will return home to Earth.
"We look forward to having their experience on board. And of course we look forward to newcomers Bob and Jessica joining us," Jensen added. "They will be up there with us until the fall timeframe. A lot of research planned." She added that the crew will be working on everything from materials science to plant-related science, technology testing and more.
And this work will "further some of the capabilities that we need for going beyond low-Earth orbit. It also brings a lot of benefits to us here on Earth. I think station is ready to welcome Crew-4," Jensen said.