On the heels of the first all-private commercial flight to the International Space Station, four professional astronauts rocketed into orbit early Wednesday, chased down the lab complex and moved in for docking to kick off a four-and-a-half-month stay.
Strapped into a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, commander Kjell Lindgren, pilot Robert Hines, geologist-astronaut Jessica Watkins and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti docked at the Harmony module’s space-facing port at 7:37 p.m. EDT, 15 hours and 44 minutes after blastoff from the Kennedy Space Center.
Lindgren and company are replacing four other long-duration astronauts, Crew-3 commander Raja Chari, pilot Thomas Marshburn, submariner-turned-astronaut Kayla Barron and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer,.
About two hours after docking, after leak checks and other post-docking procedures, hatches were opened and the Crew-3 astronauts welcomed their replacements aboard with hugs and handshakes.
Before heading home, the Crew-3 astronauts will familiarize their replacements with the ins and outs of station operations, reviewing safety procedures and on-going research. If all goes well, Chari and his crewmates will undock next Wednesday and return to Earth to close out a 174-day mission.
The Crew-4 launch and rendezvous were timed to get the spacecraft to the station well ahead of a spacewalk Thursday by cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev. As it is, the SpaceX capsule docked while the station’s three cosmonauts were asleep.
Rather than waking them up early on the eve of a complex spacewalk, a traditional welcome-aboard ceremony for the Crew-4 astronauts was delayed to early Thursday, after the spacewalkers, along with crewmate Sergey Korsakov, got up to begin their busy day.
The launching marked SpaceX’s 150th Falcon 9 flight, it’s 16th so far this year and its fifth so far this month.
It is the first flight for the Crew Dragon “Freedom,” the fourth and, for now, final Crew Dragon capsule to roll off the SpaceX assembly line in Hawthorne, California, and the fourth flight of the Falcon 9’s first stage, the most for any booster assigned to a NASA astronaut flight.
“This is (NASA’s) fourth crew rotation mission,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “It’s almost surreal that we’re here on this fourth mission, launching four crew (members) in the fourth month of the year on our fourth-flight booster. So it’s kind of a 4-4-4 mission for us. It’s a huge accomplishment for our team and the industry.”
Launch originally was planned for April 23, but the flight was held up when high winds and rough seas delayed the return to Earth of four private citizens making the first fully-commercial visit to the space station. The Axiom 1 crew, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville, Florida, to clear the way for Crew-4’s takeoff.
Lighting up the deep overnight sky for miles around, the Falcon 9 blasted off from historic pad 39A at 3:52 a.m. EDT, arcing away on a northeasterly trajectory directly into the plane of the space station’s orbit — a requirement for rendezvous missions.
Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, well out of the dense lower atmosphere, the first stage fell away, flipped around and headed for touchdown on an off-shore landing barge while the Falcon 9’s second stage continued the climb to orbit.
Then, in quick succession, the second stage engine shut down, the first stage successfully landed and the Crew Dragon was released to fly on its own. If all goes well, Lindgren and Hines will monitor an automated 16-hour 22-minute rendezvous with the space station, gliding in for docking at the Harmony module’s upper port at 8:15 p.m.
“Dragon’s safely carrying Kjell, Bob, Samantha, and Jessica to the International Space Station,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s space operations chief. “I really want to thank the SpaceX team for doing such a great job. … What a beautiful launch it was.”
It is the second space flight for Cristoforetti and Lindgren, who flew to the station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2014 and 2015 respectively, and the first flight for Watkins and Hines.
In a brief video downlink Wednesday afternoon, Hines and Watkins both marveled at the view of Earth from 260 miles up amid jokes about playing with their food in weightlessness and showing off the crew’s zero gravity indicators, a small stuffed turtle and a monkey doll provided by the daughters of Hines and Cristoforetti.
“It was an amazing ride up into low-Earth orbit,” Lindgren said. “The sensation of the rocket last night was absolutely amazing, an incredibly smooth ride and just incredibly fun to feel that acceleration and then the weightlessness after we got into orbit.”
Now aboard the space station, Hines said earlier, “we’ll have a little bit of adaptation time, still getting used to zero G, moving around, and just letting our bodies adapt to it.”
“And while we’re doing that, we’ll also be talking with our crewmates up there. They’ll be handing off a lot of the things that they’ve been working on, teaching us some tricks of the trade and just some currency, really, of how things have been operating up there so that we can pick up and make a seamless transition.”
Watkins, who holds a doctorate in geology and helped plan the science carried out by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover during a stint at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the chance to study Earth from “from that vantage point, see all of the processes and features from that perspective, it’s just super exciting.”
Watkins is the 17th African American to fly in space, the fifth woman of color and the first to make a long-duration stay aboard the space station. In a pre-launch interview with CBS News, she called that “an important milestone for the agency and for the country.”
“I certainly kind of stand on the shoulders of giants,” she said. “I am honored to be a small part of a legacy of black women astronauts that came before me and kind of laid the foundation and enabled me to be here today.”
Lindgren and company plan to remain aboard the station until mid September when another Crew Dragon will bring up their replacements.
The carefully choreographed crew rotation sequence comes amid heightened international tension asdrags on, raising questions about the on-going cooperation required to operate the International Space Station.
Lindgren said NASA and his crew “are certainly not immune to the the geopolitical situation right now. These are very challenging times.”
“But this is our job,” he said. “We’ve been given the privilege of this mission, going to the space station, maintaining its operation, and conducting the science and research that so many from around the world have invested in, and in creating that operational bridge for the programs in front of us, moon and Mars. So we take that very seriously.”
And that includes working closely with the space station’s three Russian crewmembers,.
“We very much look forward to getting on orbit and working with our Russian colleagues,” Lindgren said. “Oleg, Sergey and Denis are amazing space fliers. We’ve had the opportunity to train with them, to have meals with them and we very much look forward to working with them on orbit.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Tuesday he remains confident Russia will continue its participation in the International Space Station project through 2030.
“Despite the horrors that we are seeing with our eyes daily on television of what’s happening in Ukraine as a result of political decisions that are being made by the president of Russia, despite all of that … I see that professional relationship with astronauts and cosmonauts and the ground teams in the two respective mission controls, I see that continuing.”