Another Crew Heads to ISS

Another Crew Heads to ISS

Four astronauts lifted off from Kennedy Space Center this morning at 3:52:55 am ET headed to the International Space Station. The launch took place less than two days after a private astronaut crew returned from ISS. The dizzying pace of activities at ISS will continue with the crew docking later tonight and a Russian spacewalk starting tomorrow morning. [UPDATE: they docked at 7:37 pm ET.]

NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti are riding on a brand new SpaceX Crew Dragon they named “Freedom.”  Crew Dragons are reusable and this is the fourth and final capsule the company plans to build. The first crew to fly each spacecraft gets to name them. The others are Endurance, Resilience, and Endeavour.

Endeavour just came back on Monday, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Jacksonsville at 1:06 pm ET bringing four private astronauts home. The Axiom-1 crew spent 17 days in space, 15 on the ISS.

And now this morning, SpaceX is back at it again, launching Crew-4, the fourth NASA crew rotation flight. These astronauts will stay for a regular tour of duty, about six months, returning in September.

Crew-4 walking out to get into Tesla cars for the ride to Launch Complex 39-A. L-R: Jessica Watkins, Bob Hines, Kjell Lindgren, Samantha Cristoforetti. Screengrab.

It was less than two years ago that SpaceX launched its first human spaceflight mission, Demo-2, that restored the ability to launch astronauts to orbit from the United States. For nine years, NASA had to rely on Russia after the space shuttle was terminated. NASA’s space shuttle is the only other reusable human spacecraft ever built and flown operationally.

This is SpaceX’s seventh human spacefight in that short time and the sixth to dock with the ISS: Demo-2, Crew-1, Crew-2, Inspiration4, Crew-3, Axiom-1, and Crew-4.

Liftoff of Crew-4 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39-A, April 27, 2022. This was the first flight of SpaceX’s fourth Crew Dragon capsule, Freedom.  Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Crew Dragon was built through a public-private partnership between NASA and SpaceX with the explicit goal that SpaceX would find non-NASA customers to close the business case. Inspiration4 and Axiom-1 were the first of what the company expects to be many flights of non-professional or private astronauts who pay considerable sums of money for the experience. Some like Axiom-1 will visit ISS and others like Inspiration4 will orbit Earth independently.

Crew-4 will replace Crew-3, three NASA astronauts and one from ESA, who have been on ISS since November. They are expected to return on May 4-5 after several days of handing over U.S. segment operations to their successors.

Three Russian cosmonauts also are on ISS, and two are getting ready to make a spacewalk tomorrow, Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev. It is the second of two spacewalks to activate the European Robotic Arm on Russia’s Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module, which arrived last summer.

Traditionally a welcome ceremony takes place soon after a new crew floats through the hatch into the ISS, but the cosmonauts will be in their sleep period prior to the spacewalk when Crew-4 boards this evening, so the welcome ceremony will wait a few hours until 2:40 am ET tomorrow, April 28, when they are awake.

As its name makes clear, the ISS is international.  The “U.S.” segment is composed of modules from the United States, Europe, and Japan and a robotic arm from Canada. The “Russian” segment is composed of modules built by Russia, but one is owned by the United States (we paid for Zarya, the first module to be launched), and the newest, Nauka, has the European Robotic Arm.

Despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada, the ISS crews and their support teams on the ground continue to work together collegially. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said yesterday that “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 by the President of Russia,” the professional space relationships that date back to the Cold War-era Apollo-Soyuz Test Project endure.

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