Four professional astronauts blasted into space early Wednesday, tracked down the lab complex, and docked to begin a four-and-a-half-month tenure, after the first all-private commercial voyage to the International Space Station. At 7:37 p.m. EDT, commander Kjell Lindgren, pilot Robert Hines, geologist-astronaut Jessica Watkins, and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, strapped into a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, docked at the Harmony module’s space-facing port, 15 hours and 44 minutes after blastoff from the Kennedy Space Center.
Lindgren and his crew are replacing four other long-duration astronauts who were sent to the space station last November: Crew-3 commander Raja Chari, pilot Thomas Marshburn, submarine-turned-astronaut Kayla Barron, and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer. After leak tests and other post-docking procedures, the hatches were opened about two hours after docking, and the Crew-3 astronauts greeted their replacements with hugs and handshakes.
The Crew-3 astronauts will educate their successors on the ins and outs of station operations, as well as safety measures and ongoing research, before returning home. If all goes according to plan, Chari and his team will undock next Wednesday and return to Earth, bringing the 174-day mission to a finish. The Crew-4 launch and rendezvous were planned to send the spacecraft to the station in time for cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev to do a spacewalk on Thursday.
The SpaceX spacecraft docked with the station while the three cosmonauts were sleeping. Rather than waking them up early on the day of a difficult spacewalk, the Crew-4 astronauts’ customary welcome-aboard ritual was postponed until early Thursday, when the spacewalkers and crewmate Sergey Korsakov woke up to start their busy day. This was SpaceX’s 150th Falcon 9 launch, as well as the company’s 16th this year and fifth this month.
It’s the maiden launch of the Crew Dragon “Freedom,” the fourth and, for the time being, last Crew Dragon capsule to roll off the SpaceX manufacturing line in Hawthorne, California, as well as the fourth flight of the Falcon 9’s first stage, the most of any rocket assigned to a NASA astronaut trip.
“This is (NASA’s) fourth crew rotation flight,” Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, stated. “It’s almost strange that we’re on our fourth mission, launching four crew members on our fourth-flight rocket in the fourth month of the year. As a result, it’s a 4-4-4 mission for us. It’s a significant achievement for both our team and the industry.”
The launch was initially scheduled for April 23, but it was postponed due to heavy winds and stormy seas, which caused the return to Earth of four private people who had made the first wholly commercial visit to the space station to be delayed. The Axiom 1 crew returned home on Monday, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville, Florida, to make room for Crew-4 to take off.
The Falcon 9 lifted off from historic pad 39A at 3:52 a.m. EDT, arcing away on a northeasterly course right into the plane of the space station’s orbit — a prerequisite for rendezvous missions — lighting up the deep midnight sky for miles around.
The first stage dropped away, spun about, and headed for a landing on an off-shore landing barge two and a half minutes after liftoff, far out of the thick lower atmosphere, while the Falcon 9’s second stage completed the journey to orbit.
The second stage engine then shut down, the first stage landed safely, and the Crew Dragon was freed to fly on its own. Lindgren and Hines will watch a 16-hour 22-minute automatic rendezvous with the space station, gliding in for docking at the Harmony module’s top port at 8:15 p.m. if everything goes well.
“Dragon is securely transporting Kjell, Bob, Samantha, and Jessica to the International Space Station,” NASA’s space operations head Kathy Lueders stated. “I’d want to express my gratitude to the SpaceX crew for their outstanding work. It was really a lovely launch.”
Cristoforetti and Lindgren went to the station on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2014 and 2015, respectively, while Watkins and Hines are making their maiden space voyage.
Hines and Watkins marveled at the view of Earth from 260 miles up in a brief video downlink Wednesday afternoon, amid jokes about playing with their food in weightlessness and showing off the crew’s zero-gravity indicators, a small stuffed turtle, and a monkey doll provided by Hines and Cristoforetti’s daughters.
Lindgren remarked, “It was a spectacular flight up into low-Earth orbit.” “Last night, the experience of the rocket was simply incredible, and unbelievably smooth ride and just really enjoyable to feel that acceleration and then the weightlessness once we went into orbit,” says the astronaut.
“We’ll have a little bit of adaption time,” Hines said earlier onboard the space station, “still getting accustomed to zero G, moving about, and just letting our bodies adjust to it.”
“We’ll also be conversing with our crewmates up there while we’re doing it. They’ll be passing over a lot of the stuff they’ve been working on, giving us some tricks of the trade and just some currency, really, of how things have been running up there so we can pick up and make a smooth transition.”
Watkins, who has a degree in geology and worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the research carried out by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, said the opportunity to study Earth “from that vantage point, observe all of the processes and characteristics from that viewpoint” is “simply tremendously fascinating.”
Watkins is the 17th African American to travel in space, the fifth woman of color, and the first to remain on the International Space Station for an extended period of time. She termed it “a major milestone for the agency and for the nation” in a pre-launch interview with CBS News.
“I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” she said. “It gives me great pleasure to be a little part of a heritage of black female astronauts who came before me and built the groundwork for me to be here today.” Lindgren and his crew intend to stay on the station until mid-September when they will be replaced by another Crew Dragon.
The meticulously organized crew rotation cycle takes place against the backdrop of rising international tensions as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grinds on, increasing concerns about the ongoing collaboration essential to run the International Space Station. NASA and his team, according to Lindgren “are most definitely not immune to the current geopolitical scenario. These are really difficult times.”
“However, this is our job,” he said. “We’ve been given the honor of going to the space station, maintaining its operations, and conducting the science and research that so many people from around the world have invested in, as well as building that operational bridge for the moon and Mars programs ahead of us. As a result, we take it extremely seriously.”
That involves collaborating closely with the three Russian astronauts who landed to the outpost on March 18. “We are quite excited to go into orbit and collaborate with our Russian friends,” Lindgren added. “Oleg, Sergey, and Denis are incredible space acrobats. We’ve got the chance to train with them and have meals with them, and we’re excited to work with them in space.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed confidence on Tuesday that Russia would continue to participate in the International Space Station project until 2030. “Despite the horrors that we see daily on television of what’s happening in Ukraine as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political decisions, despite all of that… I see that professional relationship with astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the ground teams in the two respective mission controls, continuing.”