Three Americans, one Italian launch on SpaceX’s new “Freedom” spacecraft

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon Freedom spacecraft take off from pad 39A early Wednesday to begin the Crew-4 mission. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Four astronauts rocketed into a clear predawn sky early Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, riding SpaceX’s newest Dragon spacecraft — named “Freedom” — to kick off a planned four-and-a-half month science expedition at the International Space Station.

Commander Kjell Lindgren, flanked by Pilot Bob “Farmer” Hines and mission specialists Samantha Cristoforetti and Jessica Watkins, took off from historic pad 39A at the Florida spaceport at 3:52:55 a.m. EDT (0752:55 GMT) Wednesday, vaulting into the sky atop a column of bright orange flame from the Falcon 9 rocket’s nine Merlin main engines.

Within about a minute, the Crew Dragon Freedom spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket were flying faster than the speed of sound, heading northeast from Kennedy over the Atlantic Ocean to line up with the trajectory of the space station.

The Falcon 9 hit its marks on the nine-minute climb into orbit, shedding its no-longer-needed first stage and igniting a single engine on the upper stage to place the Dragon Freedom spacecraft at the right altitude and velocity to start the mission, known as Crew-4, SpaceX’s fourth operational crew rotation flight to the station.

The upper stage deployed the Dragon Freedom capsule at an altitude of roughly 120 miles (200 kilometers) about 12 minutes after liftoff. A few minutes earlier, live video from SpaceX’s booster stage showed the rocket landing on a drone ship parked several hundred miles downrange in the Atlantic Ocean.

The on-target landing completed the booster’s fourth flight to space. The reusable rocket — tail number B1067 — previously launched a space station cargo mission, a crew mission, and a Turkish communications satellite.

For Lindgren and his crewmates, the early morning launch was the first phase of a 16-hour flight to the space station, where they will replace the Crew-3 astronauts, who have lived and worked at the complex since November.

“Freedom, LD, I hope you enjoyed your ride,” SpaceX’s launch director radioed the crew shortly after launch. “It’s been an honor flying you Kjell, Farmer, Samantha, Jessica. Have a safe journey to space station. Say hi to Crew-3 for us, and we look forward to seeing you when you get home. Indeed, the dream is alive.”

“From Freedom, we want say a big thank you to SpaceX, the commercial crew program and specifically the Falcon 9 team for a great ride,” Lindgren replied from space. “It is a privilege to get to fly this new vehicle, the Crew Dragon Freedom, to orbit. Huge thanks to the team who assembled and prepared her for flight. We’re feeling great and looking forward to the view.”

The launch of the Crew-4 mission occurred just 39 hours after SpaceX’s previous crew flight — a private mission for the Houston-based company Axiom Space — splashed down off the coast of Georgia to wrap up 17 days in orbit.

The Axiom flight was the first of its kind to visit the space station — a purely commercial venture without any government leadership role. A retired NASA astronaut and three paying passengers flew to the complex to perform scientific experiments, public outreach events, and to enjoy experiencing the microgravity environment more the 250 miles above Earth.

“If we look tired, it’s maybe because we are a bit tired,” said Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s space operations mission directorate. “What a busy week in NASA space operations. Less than 40 hours ago we had our first private astronaut mission, and the team carefully went through that data and then set up for the Crew-4 launch.”

Crew-4 is a commercial SpaceX flight under the auspices of the company’s multibillion-dollar contract with NASA. It is SpaceX’s seventh launch of astronauts, and the company’s fourth operational crew rotation flight to the space station.

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. The next Starliner test flight, without a crew, is scheduled for launch to the space station May 19.

The Crew-4 astronauts planned to get some sleep Wednesday before waking up in the mid-afternoon hours (EDT) to begin preparations for docking a the space station. The automated link-up with the station’s Harmony module is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0015 GMT Thursday).

A few hours later, the crew members will open hatches and enter the space station, joining the seven astronauts and cosmonauts already living on the research outpost.

NASA commander Kjell Lindgren is flying on his second space mission after spending 141 days in orbit on a long-duration expedition at the station in 2015. Cristoforetti, a European Space Agency astronaut from Milan, Italy, flew more than 199 days on the space station in 2014 and 2015.

Hines and Watkins are first-time space fliers. Both were selected to join NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017.

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 Dragon Freedom spacecraft is SpaceX’s fourth — and likely final — human-rated Dragon spacecraft. The crew announced last month the new capsule would 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.”

European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti waves to family members and colleagues as she rides a Tesla Model X to pad 39A early Wednesday. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

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 have 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 in 2015, 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. 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.

A Falcon 9 rocket streaks into orbit from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to begin the Crew-4 mission. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

Watkins, a 33-year-old planetary geologist, 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 than any of her crewmates. Like Lindgren, she launched on first space mission aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket and spacecraft.

She 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.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.