Four astronauts arrive at space station for long-term stay

SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft docked Wednesday with the Harmony module at the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV / Spaceflight Now

Three Americans and one Italian astronaut floated into the International Space Station late Wednesday after a nearly 16-hour commute aboard a SpaceX crew capsule from a launch pad in Florida, ready for a multi-month expedition performing experiments, maintenance, and upgrades.

SpaceX’s fourth operational crew 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 took off from the Kennedy Space Center at 3:52 a.m. EDT (0752 GMT) Wednesday on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft ferried the four-person crew to the station, using a series of orbit adjustment burns to match the altitude and velocity of the science outpost.

The rendezvous culminated in an automated docking with the zenith, or space-facing, port on the station’s Harmony module at 7:37 p.m. EDT (2337 GMT). That wrapped up a 15-hour, 45-minute journey from the launch pad in Florida, the fastest transit time for a U.S. mission from liftoff until docking at the space station.

Russian crew and cargo missions have reached the station in as few as three hours after launch.

The favorable position of the space station in its orbit at the time of the Crew-4 launch early Wednesday allowed SpaceX’s Dragon Freedom spacecraft to reach the complex several hours faster than previous Dragon missions.

Lindgren, a veteran of a 141-day expedition on the station in 2015, was joined on Crew-4 mission by pilot Bob Hines, European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, and NASA mission specialist Jessica Watkins.

“We had an absolutely magnificent ride into low Earth orbit on an F9 booster and the Freedom capsule,” Lindgren said. “It was a really smooth ride. And the Gs were pretty amazing.”

“It was just incredible,” Hines said. “That ride, especially on the second stage, it was just really eye-watering, it was awesome.”

Hines and Watkins are flying in 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 part that was the most awesome of the whole ride was definitely the view,” Watkins said. “Right as we were coming in for docking, we were starting to get suits on and starting to prepare and just had time to take a last-minute look out the window, and we could see the space station kind of off in the distance.”

Watkins and her colleagues will have plenty of time to enjoy the view of Earth from the space station’s windows. The Crew-4 mission is slated 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 multibillion-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 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.

Before Boeing and NASA can move forward with the Starliner test flight, the astronauts on the space station will complete a nearly week-long handover before 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 at the station with three Russian cosmonaut crewmates.

Departure of the Crew-3 mission is scheduled for May 4, but the schedule could change as officials monitor weather conditions in SpaceX’s seven splashdown zones off the coast of Florida. Managers will watch for storms, winds, and high seas before committing the crew for return to Earth.

The arrival of the Crew-4 mission comes three days after another SpaceX crew capsule — Dragon Endeavour — undocked from the space station with a retired NASA astronaut and three wealthy businessmen. That mission, managed by a Houston-based company named Axiom Space, was the first fully private crew to visit the station. Previous space tourists or private astronauts flew to the station on government-led missions.

The busy season of space station traffic began in March with arrival of three Russian cosmonauts on a Soyuz spacecraft and the return to Earth of the previous Soyuz crew.

Amid the comings and goings, the crew at the space station has continued research experiments and maintenance. Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev were asleep at the time of the Crew-4 docking Wednesday, resting up before a planned spacewalk Thursday to continue activating and outfitting the European Robotic Arm outside the Nauka module.

“As you can see from the smiles around, we are very happy to have our new crewmates aboard with us,” Marshburn said in a welcome ceremony early Thursday. “Congratulations, really around the world, but to SpaceX and to NASA for pulling off what still remains a very dangerous activity of launching humans into space, but pulled it off just brilliantly.

“Really dynamic weeks here,” Marshburn said. “We’ve just said goodbye to our private astronaut mission crewmates. There’s a russian EVA thats going to start here in just 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 on the Crew-4 mission named the new spacecraft “Freedom.”

Dragon Freedom joins sister ships Endeavour, Resilience, and Endurance in SpaceX’s inventory.

Aside from working with experiments and operating the space station, the Crew-4 astronauts plan to perform at least two U.S. spacewalks to prepare for the arrival of new power-generating solar arrays. Cristoforetti may also have a chance to head outside the station on a spacewalk in a Russian spacesuit to work on the European Robotic Arm.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.