Three Americans and one Italian astronaut floated to the International Space Station Wednesday night after a nearly 16-hour journey aboard a SpaceX crew capsule from a launch pad in Florida, ready for a multi-month expedition carrying out experiments, maintenance and updates.
SpaceX’s fourth operational crewed flight for NASA, known as Crew-4, continues the regular rotation of astronauts to and from the space station.
Commander Kjell Lindgren and three crewmates blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 3:52 a.m. EDT (0752 GMT) Wednesday atop a Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft carried the crew of four people to the station, using a series of orbit adjustment firings to match the science station’s altitude and speed.
The encounter culminated in an automated docking with the zenith, or space-facing, port on the station’s Harmony module at 7:37 pm EDT (2337 GMT). That capped a 15-hour, 45-minute journey from the launch pad in Florida, the fastest transit time for a US mission from liftoff to docking at the space station.
Russian crew and cargo missions have reached the station in just three hours after launch.
The space station’s favorable position in its orbit at the time of Crew-4’s launch early Wednesday allowed SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft to reach the complex several hours faster than previous Dragon missions.
Dragon breathes fire as it approaches the International Space Station.
Draco thrusters are guiding the crew capsule from a position below the station to the docking hub above the Harmony module.
The dock is an hour away.
Watch live: https://t.co/S7O0NSVRZf pic.twitter.com/SrbRuwvxSx
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) April 27, 2022
Lindgren, a veteran of a 141-day station expedition in 2015, was joined on the Crew-4 mission by pilot Bob Hines, European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and NASA mission specialist Jessica Watkins.
“We had an absolutely magnificent trip to low Earth orbit in an F9 booster and the Freedom capsule,” Lindgren said. “It was a really smooth ride. And the G’s were pretty amazing.”
“It was just amazing,” Hines said. “That ride, especially the second leg, was really amazing, it was amazing.”
Hines and Watkins fly into space for the first time. Both joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017. Cristoforetti, a native of Milan, Italy, spent 199 days in orbit on a space station mission in 2014 and 2015.
Watkins, a planetary geologist, is the first black woman to live on the space station for a long-duration mission.
“I think for me the most impressive part of the whole trip was definitely the view,” Watkins said. “Just as we were getting close to docking, we were starting to suit up and get ready and we had time to take one last look out the window, and we could see the space station in the distance. ”
Watkins and his colleagues will have plenty of time to enjoy the view of Earth from the space station’s windows. The Crew-4 mission is scheduled to last until at least mid-September, shortly after the launch of Crew-5, NASA’s next astronaut mission with SpaceX.
Crew-4 is a commercial SpaceX flight under the auspices of the company’s multimillion-dollar contract with NASA. The newly arrived astronauts will replace the Crew 3 astronauts, who have lived and worked on the station since November.
The Crew-4 mission is SpaceX’s seventh human spaceflight mission overall, including four operational flights for NASA, two fully commercial private astronaut missions and the first Dragon crew test flight in 2020.
The space agency announced in February that it had awarded three additional manned flights to SpaceX on the Dragon spacecraft, a contract extension valued at nearly $900 million that covers the Crew-7, Crew-8 and Crew-9 missions.
SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft is now within the approach corridor for International Docking Adapter 3, the zenith port on the space station’s Harmony module.
The range is now 170 meters (557 feet) to the International Space Station.https://t.co/S7O0NSWpON pic.twitter.com/cQcy3KMQ8r
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) April 27, 2022
NASA has a similar contract with Boeing for six operational manned missions on the Starliner spacecraft, which is still in its testing phase and has yet to carry astronauts. Starliner’s next uncrewed test flight is scheduled for launch to the space station on May 19.
Before Boeing and NASA can move forward with the Starliner test flight, space station astronauts will complete a nearly week-long handover before the Crew-3 and Crew-4 missions.
Commander Raja Chari, Pilot Tom Marshburn, and Mission Specialists Matthias Maurer and Kayla Barron launched on the Crew-3 mission last November. They will ride SpaceX’s Dragon Endurance spacecraft back to Earth next week, leaving the Crew-4 astronauts on the station with three Russian cosmonaut crewmates.
The departure of the Crew-3 mission is scheduled for May 4, but the schedule could change as officials monitor weather conditions at SpaceX’s seven splashdown zones off the Florida coast. Managers will watch for storms, winds and high seas before committing the crew to return to Earth.
The arrival of the Crew-4 mission comes three days after another SpaceX crewed capsule, Dragon Endeavor, undocked from the space station with a retired NASA astronaut and three wealthy businessmen. That mission, led by a Houston-based company called Axiom Space, was the first entirely private crew to visit the station. Previous space tourists or private astronauts have flown to the station on government-run missions.
Crew 4 astronauts boarded the International Space Station after launch and docking earlier today.
The station will house a crew of 11 for the next few days, prior to the departure and splashdown of the Crew-3 mission.https://t.co/S7O0NSVRZf pic.twitter.com/XzUe8hatrW
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) April 28, 2022
The space station’s peak traffic season began in March with the arrival of three Russian cosmonauts in a Soyuz spacecraft and the return to Earth of the previous Soyuz crew.
Amid the comings and goings, the space station crew has continued with research and maintenance experiments. Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev were asleep at the time of Crew 4 docking on Wednesday, resting before a planned spacewalk on Thursday to continue activating and equipping the European robotic arm outside the Nauka module.
“As you can see from the smiles around us, we are very pleased to have our new crewmates on board with us,” Marshburn said at a welcoming ceremony Thursday morning. “Congratulations, really worldwide, but to SpaceX and NASA for carrying out what is still a very dangerous activity of launching humans into space, but they did it brilliantly.
“Really dynamic weeks here,” Marshburn said. “We just said goodbye to our private astronaut mission crewmates. There’s a Russian EVA leaving here in a few hours.
Marshburn will hand over command of the space station crew to Artemyev next week before returning to Earth.
The Crew-4 mission flew on the fourth and final planned spacecraft in SpaceX’s fleet of Dragon crew capsules. The astronauts of the Crew-4 mission named the new spacecraft “Liberty.”
Dragon Freedom joins sister ships Endeavour, Resilience and Endurance in SpaceX’s inventory.
In addition to working on experiments and operating the space station, Crew-4 astronauts plan to conduct at least two spacewalks in the US to prepare for the arrival of new power-generating solar panels. Cristoforetti may also have the opportunity to spacewalk off the station in a Russian spacesuit to work on the European robotic arm.
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