CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX successfully launched its fourth astronaut mission to the International Space Station for NASA before dawn Wednesday, bringing the company's total crewed flight tally to seven.
The new SpaceX Dragon capsule Freedom carrying the Crew-4 astronauts lifted off from historic Launch Pad 39A here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center atop a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket today (April 27) at 3:52 a.m. EDT (0752 GMT). The Dragon and its four passengers — NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines and Jessica Watkins and the European Space Agency's Samantha Cristoforetti — are scheduled to dock with the ISS around 8:15 p.m. EDT tonight (0015 GMT on April 28).
"It is a privilege to get to fly this new vehicle, the Crew Dragon Freedom, to orbit," Lindgren said from space after the launch. "We're feeling great and we're looking forward to the view."
About 9.5 minutes after launch, the Falcon 9's first stage, designated B1067, successfully landed on the SpaceX droneship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) in the Atlantic Ocean, completing the booster's fourth flight. It previously launched the CRS-22 cargo mission and Crew-3 flight for NASA, as well as the Türksat 5B satellite, in June, November and December of last year, respectively. B1067 is expected to return to Port Canaveral aboard ASOG in the coming days.
The Crew-4 launch comes on the heels of another astronaut mission flown by SpaceX, Axiom 1 (Ax-1), which launched to the ISS on April 8 and splashed down off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, on Monday afternoon (April 25). Crew-4's liftoff marks a new and historic cadence for SpaceX, which has now launched two crews from the same pad less than three weeks apart.
Originally scheduled to lift off a week earlier, Crew-4's launch date was pushed back due to Ax-1's delayed departure from the ISS. In addition to the fact that both missions' Dragon capsules were slated to occupy the same docking port on the space station, NASA and SpaceX support personnel wanted up to two days between Ax-1's return and Crew-4's launch to "complete data reviews & stage recovery assets," Kathy Lueders, NASA's human spaceflight chief, wrote in a tweet recently. In the face of continued delays, Lueders assured, "39 hours between operations gives us enough time to finish up the work."
NASA Certification Manager for the Commercial Crew Program Carla Koch spoke with Space.com about the checks undergone by Ax-1, highlighting the attention given to the Dragon's parachute deployment systems.
A lag in parachute deployment was observed during the return to Earth of several previous SpaceX missions — namely Crew-2 and the private Inspiration4 flight, as well as one of the company's robotic Dragon cargo missions to the ISS. All ultimately deployed safely, and NASA and SpaceX investigations determined the lagged deployment to be a nominal occurrence for SpaceX's parachute systems. Koch stated that, while there was some "concern" with the chutes leading up to Crew-3, "[teams would] do the same [safety checks] after Axiom-1, before we launch Crew-4."
The Crew-3 astronauts are still aboard the ISS, by the way; they're expected to come home shortly after Crew-4 arrives at the orbiting lab.
The brand-new Dragon ferrying this round of astronauts to the ISS was named Freedom by its crew members, according to a March 23 tweet by mission commander Lindgren. The name, Lindgren wrote, celebrates "a fundamental human right, and the industry and innovation that emanate from the unencumbered human spirit."
In a call with press on March 31, Lindgren emphasized the importance of NASA's ability to resume crewed launches after the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle and spoke of the benefits of the agency's partnership with SpaceX.
Another source of inspiration was found in Freedom 7, the first-ever American human spaceflight, which launched NASA astronaut Alan Shepard on a brief suborbital trip on May 5, 1961. In an homage to that long-ago flight, Lindgren explained the crew's desire for their vessel to represent "a reflection of how far we've come."
Describing the sight of the Mercury-Redstone rocket used for that mission now on display at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Lindgren stated, "to see that first launch [vehicle] of Freedom 7 and to see where we are today is really a remarkable thing. And so we wanted to celebrate freedom for a new generation of space players."
A reflection of how far we've come, indeed. This "new generation" includes mission specialist Jessica Watkins. In stark contrast to what was possible in the America of 1961, Watkins will become the first Black woman to complete a long-term stay aboard the ISS.
The Crew-4 astronauts will spend about six months living on the ISS, a stint during which they will occupy their time with more than 200 science experiments, at least two NASA astronaut spacewalks and a possibility for mission specialist Cristoforetti to aid in a spacewalk with Russian crew members.
Sometime in September, following the launch of Crew-5, Freedom is scheduled to return to Earth with a splashdown in one of over a half-dozen qualified landing sites off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean.