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 on April 27 at 3:52 a.m. EDT. 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.
“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.
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.”
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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.