A SpaceX capsule carrying four astronauts, including the first Black woman to join the crew of the International Space Station, docked with the station smoothly Wednesday evening, setting off a five-month mission.
After a pre-dawn launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 3:52 a.m. ET, the astronauts had spent 16 hours circling aboard their SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. At 7:37 p.m. ET, the capsule, which is entirely autonomous, circled the Earth more than ten times before getting closer to the ISS and docking with one of the space station’s docking ports. The hatch on the spacecraft, which provides a safe airlock between the capsule and the space station, was opened 90 minutes later, allowing the astronauts to exit the ship and enter the International Space Station for the first time.
After completing the first all-private voyage to the space station for affluent paying customers on Monday, this mission, dubbed Crew-4, signals a return to the crewed launches that SpaceX performs in collaboration with NASA.
NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, and Jessica Watkins, as well as Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti flying for the European Space Agency, are on board.
Everything you need to know about Crew-4 is right here.
What defines this flight as historic?
Jessica Watkins is the first Black woman to join the crew of the International Space Station for an extended period of time.
Despite the fact that more than a dozen Black Americans, including four Black women, have travelled to space since Guion Bluford became the first in 1983, no Black woman has had the opportunity to live and work in space for an extended period of time, as the International Space Station has allowed more than 200 astronauts to do since 2000.
“This is certainly an important milestone I think both for our [space] agency and for the country,” Watkins said during a press briefing last month. “I think it really is just a tribute to the legacy of the black women astronauts that have come before me as well as to the exciting future ahead.”
She began her career with NASA as an intern, and she has previously worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where she worked on the Curiosity Mars rover. She has researched the surface of Mars as a certified geologist.
Watkins is known among her crew members as “Watty.”
Is there anyone else on this mission?
The crew of this mission is one of the first to have an equal number of women and men.
Cristoforetti is the only woman in the ESA astronaut corps, having previously flown to the ISS in 2014-2015. Last month, though, Cristoforetti assured reporters that the situation was “bound to end very soon.”
“We definitely expect to to have some some great female [ESA] colleagues by the end of the year,” she added.
Cristoforetti joined ESA in 2009 after serving in the Italian Air Force and earning her fighter pilot wings.
Hines is a 22-year veteran of the United States Air Force, and this is his first trip to space since joining NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017.
Lindgren, the mission’s commander, is an emergency medical specialist who worked as a flight surgeon on the ground at NASA’s Johnson Space Center supporting earlier astronaut missions before being chosen to fly himself. Lindgren was born in Taiwan and spent most of his childhood in England before relocating to the United States and enrolling in the United States Air Force Academy.
This group of four astronauts spent months training together and even found time to bond outside of the classroom. “just to get to spend some time getting to know each other and understanding how we all function…and what makes each of us tick, and I think that’s going to be really crucial,” Watkins said of their kayaking trip in Eastern Washington.
“We get along great. It is just such a joy to have these folks on this team ” Lindgren continued.
How did they get to space in the first place?
The crew went aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which has now launched seven crewed flights since entering service in 2020.
Despite the fact that the Crew Dragon was designed to be reusable and that three capsules have already been deployed, Crew-4 is riding on a brand new spaceship called “Freedom.”
SpaceX created the Crew Dragon as part of NASA’s “Commercial Crew Program” under a $2.6 billion contract. The program’s goal was to turn NASA into a client, allowing private companies to design, produce, and test new spacecraft for NASA astronauts while still retaining ownership of the vehicle.
Because SpaceX owns the vehicle, it may sell seats to anyone it wants, as evidenced by the all-private mission that the firm recently completed and a previous space tourism mission that launched in September of last year.
The initiative was rated a success by NASA, and the space agency is using the same contracting process for many spacecraft participating in its moon exploration projects.
What will they do once they reach space?
The crew will catch up with the seven astronauts already aboard the ISS, including three NASA astronauts and an ESA astronaut who were part of SpaceX’s Crew-3 mission, as well as three Russian cosmonauts, now that they’ve arrived.
Before Crew-3 goes home aboard their own SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, there will be a five-day handover period during which the Crew-3 astronauts will assist the Crew-4 astronauts in settling in.
The Crew-4 astronauts will then get down to business with all of the science experiments and space station maintenance tasks on their to-do list.
According to NASA, “Experiments will include studies on the aging of immune systems, organic material concrete alternatives, and cardiorespiratory effects during and after long-duration exposure to microgravity.” “These are just some of the more than 200 science experiments and technology demonstrations that will take place during their mission.”
Crew-4 is scheduled to return to Earth in September, shortly after SpaceX’s Crew-5 mission is launched.