In the early hours of the morning, SpaceX is set to launch its seventh manned mission into orbit, this time sending three NASA astronauts and an Italian astronaut to the International Space Station. Its launch will trigger the start of a six-month stay aboard the ISS, part of SpaceX’s commitment to NASA to regularly fly astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory.
The mission, called Crew-4, is SpaceX’s fourth operational human spaceflight mission to the ISS for NASA. The company has been flying NASA astronauts to the space station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative to use privately made spacecraft to transport crews to low-Earth orbit. SpaceX launched its first crew to the ISS on the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2020 and has kept a steady pace with follow-up manned missions ever since.
On board this flight are two veteran aviators: NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, who have visited the International Space Station before. They will be joined by two rookie aviators for this trip, including NASA astronauts Jessica Watkins and Bob Hines, who were selected to be astronauts in 2017. Watkins will also make history with her flight, as she will be the first Black woman to live as long-term crew member on the space station.
“This is definitely an important milestone, I think for both our agency and the country,” Watkins said of his flight. “And I think it’s really just a tribute to the legacy of the black female astronauts who have come before me, as well as the exciting future that lies ahead. For that, I am honored to be just a small part of that legacy moving forward.”
Crew-4 takes place less than two days after SpaceX brought back other crew of four from the space station, though that crew did not include any government flyers. On April 8, SpaceX sent four private astronauts to the ISS in a Crew Dragon for commercial aerospace company Axiom Space, which has contracted with SpaceX to launch a series of human spaceflight missions to the space station. Most of Axiom’s pilots each paid $55 million for their seat on Crew Dragon, agreeing to conduct experiments aboard the station and helping Axiom develop protocols for sending people to private space stations in the future.
The Axiom astronauts were supposed to return to Earth after an eight-day visit to the ISS, but their trip home was delayed by a week due to bad weather in Florida, where they needed to splash down. As Axiom’s flight stretched out, NASA had to delay the launch of Crew-4, as the agency wanted about two days to prepare between splashdown and launch. Finally, the Axiom crew was able to return home on Monday afternoon, paving the way for Crew-4 to take off on Wednesday morning.
Once Crew-4 is on the space station, they will join three Russian cosmonauts, three NASA astronauts and a German European Space Agency astronaut already living on the ISS. NASA astronauts and ESA astronauts will help familiarize the incoming crew with the ISS before returning home in a SpaceX Crew Dragon of their own. They are part of the NASA and SpaceX Crew-3 mission, which launched to the space station in November and is now drawing to a close.
Crew-4 is scheduled to launch at 3:52 am ET atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from the company’s launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. NASA plans to provide launch coverage starting at midnight ET on Wednesday morning.