SpaceX launched the first private flight with NASA astronauts to the International Space Station

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (John Raoux/)

SpaceX sent four astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA on Wednesday, less than two days after completing a flight chartered by millionaires.

It is the first NASA crew to be made up of equal men and women, including the first black woman to make a long-term spaceflight, Jessica Watkins.

“I think this is one of the most diversified crews we’ve had in a long, long time,” NASA space operations mission chief Kathy Lueders said on the eve of the launch.

The astronauts were due to arrive at the space station Wednesday night, 16 hours after their predawn liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center. They will spend five months in the orbiting laboratory.

SpaceX launches 4 astronauts into space
SpaceX Crew-4 astronauts, from left, Pilot Bob Hines, Mission Specialist Jessica Watkins, Commander Kjell Lindgren, and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, from Italy, salute as they exit the Operations Building and checking for a trip to Launch Complex 39, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the four astronauts will fly to the International Space Station. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (John Raoux/)

SpaceX has now launched five crews for NASA and two private voyages in just under two years. Elon Musk‘s company is having an especially busy few weeks: he just finished flying three entrepreneurs to and from the space station as NASA’s first private guests.

A week after the arrival of the new crew, the three Americans and the Germans they replace will return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsule. Three Russians also live on the space station.

Both SpaceX and NASA officials stressed that they are taking one step at a time to ensure safety. The private mission that ended Monday encountered no major problems, they said, although strong winds delayed the splashdown for a week.

SpaceX Launch Control wished the astronauts good fortune and good luck moments before the Falcon rocket blasted off with the capsule, named Freedom by its crew.

SpaceX launches 4 astronauts into space
NASA astronaut Robert Hines greets family and friends as he and his crewmates depart the Neil A. Armstrong Operations Building and checkout for Launch Complex 39A to board the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft for mission launch Crew-4, on Tuesday, April 26, 2022, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Aubrey Gemignani, NASA via AP) (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani/)

“Our sincerest thanks to each of you who made this possible. Now let the Falcon roar and Freedom ring,” NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Commander, said over the radio. Minutes later, his recycled booster had landed on an ocean platform and his capsule was safely orbiting Earth. “It was a great trip”said.

SpaceX capsules are fully automated, opening the doors of space to a broader clientele, and are designed to fit a broader range of body sizes. At the same time, NASA and the European Space Agency have been pushing for more female astronauts.

While two black women visited the space station during the shuttle era, neither moved in for an extended stay. Watkins, a geologist who is on NASA’s short list for a moon landing mission in the next few years, sees her mission as “an important milestone, I think, for both the agency and the country.”

She credits family and mentors who supported her, including Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space in 1992, for “finally being able to live my dream.”

SpaceX launches 4 astronauts into space
The astronauts before heading to the launch site. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (John Raoux/)

Watkins was also encouraged by another geologist: Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17, who walked on the moon in 1972. She invited the retired astronaut to the launch, along with his wife. “We think of ourselves as Jessica’s team,” she said, laughing.

“Those of us who assembled the Saturn V in space are a bit jaded with smaller rockets,” Schmitt said after SpaceX’s liftoff. “But still, it really was something and there was a geologist on board … they put her in a good position to be part of one of the Artemis crews going to the moon.”

Like Watkins, NASA astronaut and test pilot Bob Hines is making his first spaceflight. It is the second visit for the European Space Agency’s only female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, a former Italian Air Force fighter pilot, and Lindgren, a doctor.

The newly completed private flight was NASA’s first foray into space tourism after years of opposition.. The space agency said the three people who paid $55 million each to visit the space station they mingled while conducting experiments and educational activities. They were accompanied by a former NASA astronaut employed by Houston-based Axiom Space, which arranged the flight.

SpaceX launches 4 astronauts into space
SpaceX capsules are fully automated, opening the doors of space to a broader clientele, and are designed to fit a broader range of body sizes. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (John Raoux/)

“The International Space Station is not a vacation spot. It is not an amusement park. It is an international laboratory, and they fully understood and respected that purpose”NASA Flight Director Zeb Scoville said.

NASA also contracted with Boeing to transport astronauts after retiring the shuttles. The company will try again next month to get an empty crew capsule to the space station, after software and other problems marred a 2019 test flight and prevented a renewal last summer.

(with information from AP)


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