SpaceX poised for quick turnaround between astronaut missions

NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins, commander Kjell Lindgren, pilot Bob Hines, and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on the tower at pad 39A, with SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft in the background. Credit: SpaceX

Just 39 hours after SpaceX returned four private astronauts to Earth, the company’s next crew launch for NASA is set for early Wednesday from Florida, with a planetary geologist, a medical doctor, and former U.S. and Italian fighter pilots heading to the International Space Station.

The four astronauts assigned to NASA’s Crew-4 mission had to wait a few extra days to begin their flight to the station. SpaceX and NASA delayed the launch of the Crew-4 flight to wait for the departure of another crew capsule from the station, a return which itself was pushed back a week by a scheduling constraint and weather concerns.

But SpaceX’s Dragon Endeavour capsule finally undocked from the station Sunday, clearing the docking port needed for the arrival of the Crew-4 mission. Taking advantage of a break in high winds, Dragon Endeavour and its four-man crew safely splashed down off the coast of Georgia at 1:06 p.m. EDT (1706 GMT) Monday, ending the first all-private, non-government mission to the International Space Station.

The 17-day flight for Axiom Space, a Houston-based company, was the first fully commercial mission of its kind to visit the orbiting research complex. It’s a pathfinder for future private crew flights to the station, and could ultimately lead to development of a privately-owned human-tended outpost in low Earth orbit.

The splashdown cleared the way for launch of the Crew-4 mission on SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft — a new capsule in the company’s fleet — from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 3:52 a.m. EDT (0752 GMT) Wednesday. A Falcon 9 rocket powered by a thrice-flown reusable first stage booster will send the Dragon capsule into orbit.

Commander Kjell Lindgren, veteran of one previous expedition on the space station, leads the four-person crew awaiting liftoff Wednesday. He will be joined by pilot Bob Hines and mission specialist Jessica Watkins, two first-time fliers from NASA’s astronaut corps. European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, a native of Italy who spent nearly 200 days in orbit in 2014 and 2015, rounds out the crew.

“We are really in a golden era of space exploration,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “We’ve seen the first private astronaut mission that has successfully returned, now a 39-hour turnaround and we’re going to launch Crew-4.”

If the launch takes off early Wednesday, the Crew-4 astronauts are scheduled to dock at the Harmony module on the space station at 8:15 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0015 GMT Thursday).

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon Freedom spacecraft on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX and NASA engineers reviewed data from the Axiom mission and cleared the Crew-4 mission for liftoff during a launch readiness review early Tuesday.

“It was a very clean flight overall, really no major issues,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager. “The team went through all of the data, and they had a chance to review everything. They looked at the thermal protection system.”

Stich said the parachutes on the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft performed well Monday, with no sign of any lagging inflation of any of the four main chutes, a phenomenon observed on several previous Dragon flights.

The Crew-4 mission will be SpaceX’s seventh launch of astronauts, and the company’s fourth operational crew rotation flight to the space station under a multibillion contract with NASA. The space agency announced in February it awarded three additional crew flights to SpaceX on Dragon spacecraft, a contract extension valued at nearly $900 million covering the Crew-7, Crew-8, and Crew-9 missions.

NASA has a similar contract with Boeing for six operational crew missions on the Starliner spacecraft, which is still in its test phase and has not yet flown astronauts.

Stich said the final loading of cargo into the Dragon Freedom spacecraft has been completed in preparation for launch Wednesday. SpaceX’s recovery teams, U.S. military rescue forces, and the Coast Guard are ready to support the mission, he said.

There’s a 90% chance of acceptable weather at the Kennedy Space Center for liftoff Wednesday morning, and a low-to-moderate risk of bad conditions along the Falcon 9’s ascent corridor heading northeast over the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX monitors conditions downrange to ensure weather and sea states would be safe for a splashdown of the Dragon spacecraft in the event of an in-flight abort caused by a rocket failure.

Once the Dragon spacecraft delivers its crew to the space station, Lindgren, Hines, Cristoforetti and Watkins will receive briefings from the four astronauts they are replacing on the station.

The flight plan calls for handover of at least five days between the new Crew-4 astronauts and the outgoing Crew-3 astronauts, who are tentatively scheduled to depart the station around May 4, targeting a splashdown off the coast of Florida around May 5, wrapping up their nearly six-month mission.

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, leaving the Crew-4 astronauts at the station with three Russian cosmonaut crewmates.

The countdown clock at the KSC press site displays the Crew-4 mission patch, with the Falcon 9 and Dragon Freedom on pad 39A in the background. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

Lindgren and his crew will fly on the first mission of SpaceX’s fourth — and likely final — human-rated Dragon spacecraft. The crew announced last month the new capsule will be named “Freedom.”

“We want to celebrate what we see as fundamental human right, and also to celebrate what the unfettered human spirit is capable of,” Lindgren said in a pre-flight press conference. “And it’s also just kind of a reflection of how far we’ve come.”

The name also honors Freedom 7, the capsule that carried astronaut Alan Shepard to suborbital space on the first U.S. human spaceflight mission in May 1961.

“To see that first launch of Freedom 7, and to see where we are today is really a remarkable thing,” Lindgren said. “So we wanted to celebrate freedom for a new generation of space fliers.”

The new Dragon Freedom spacecraft looks like the other three capsules in SpaceX’s fleet of reusable vehicles. But it comes with some upgrades, including an improvement in the voice communications system.

The astronauts also heralded an addition that would be appreciated by anyone on a long road trip.

“We now have USB charging ports in this spacecraft,” Lindgren said. “This is something that goes to low Earth orbit and is going to get us to the space station, and I’m talking about USB ports.”

The charging ports will allow the astronauts to top up power on their tablets, which contain reference materials for the flight up to the space station.

“It’s the little things. Next, the coffeemaker,” Lindgren joked.

“No wifi though!” Hines retorted.

The crew will get internet access after arriving at the space station. Communications on-board the Dragon spacecraft goes through SpaceX’s mission control in Hawthorne, California.

Lindgren, 49 and a father of three, was born in Taiwan and grew up in England and in the United States, then attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, where was a member of the school’s parachute team. He later earned a medical degree and became a NASA flight surgeon before his selection to join the NASA astronaut corps in 2009.

After completing his first space mission, a long-duration expedition that lasted 141 days, Lindgren was assigned as the backup to NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on SpaceX’s first Dragon test flight to carry people into orbit.

Hines is a 47-year-old lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force gearing up for his first launch into space. He was born in North Carolina and grew up in Pennsylvania, then served as an F-15E fighter pilot and graduated from Air Force Test Pilot School. Hines continued to fly F-15s as a test pilot and deployed overseas in support of special forces operations, while also working as a test pilot for the Federal Aviation Administration.

NASA hired Hines as a research pilot based in Houston in 2012, and the agency selected him to become an astronaut in 2017.

Watkins also joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017. The 33-year-old scientist will become the first Black woman to live and work on the space station for a long-duration mission.

“This is certainly an important milestone, I think, both for our agency and for the country,” Watkins said. “I think it’s really just a tribute to the legacy of the Black women astronauts that have come before, as well as to the exciting future ahead.”

She was born in Maryland and considers Lafayette, Colorado, as her hometown. She earned a doctorate in geology from UCLA, then joined the science team working on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover mission, participated in system design for the Perseverance rover and the Mars Sample Return mission.

Watkins was one of 18 astronauts NASA named in 2020 for potential future assignments to moon missions under the agency’s Artemis lunar program. She said her work at the station, among other tasks, will help develop technology and robotics for the Artemis program, along with experiments in radiation protection and human health and biological research, all areas geared toward enabling longer and farther missions into space.

“As NASA pivots to the moon and Mars, that pivot point is the space station,” Hines said. “So all that technology is going to the space station, where we develop it and refine it before we pivot and send it off to the moon and eventually on to Mars.”

Cristoforetti, 44, has logged more time in space — nearly 200 days — than any of her crewmates. Like Lindgren, she launched on first space mission aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket and spacecraft.

Born in Milan, Italy, Cristoforetti holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Technical University of Munich. She was a fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force before ESA selected her as part of its 2009 astronaut class.

The astronauts will perform spacewalks and conduct experiments during their time on the space station. Cristoforetti may have a chance to head outside the station in a Russian spacesuit to help activate the European Robotic Arm.

The Crew-4 mission is scheduled to end in mid-September with a re-entry and splashdown off the coast of Florida. NASA’s Crew-5 mission is set for launch to the space station in early September.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.