Four astronauts set for overnight launch to space station

One day after bringing four commercial fliers down from the International Space Station, SpaceX prepared a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule for launch early Wednesday to ferry four professional astronauts to the lab complex for a planned four-and-a-half-month stay .

Liftoff from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center is targeted for 3:52:55 am EDT, roughly the moment Earth’s rotation carries the rocket into the plane of the space station’s orbit — a requirement for rendezvous missions. Forecasters predicted a 90% chance of good weather.

The Crew-4 astronauts (left to right): Jessica Watkins, pilot Bob Hines, commander Kjell Lindgren and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. / Credit: SpaceX

NASA’s fourth operational commercial crew launch to the space station comes on the heels of a fully commercial flight to the outpost, an extended 17-day visit that came to an end Monday with a successful Atlantic Ocean splashdown.

Before pressing ahead with NASA’s Crew-4 mission, engineers had to review data from the Axiom-1 mission to make sure no technical issues had cropped up that could affect downstream flights. As it turned out, “it was a very clean flight overall, really no major issues,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“The teams have looked through a lot of the data,” he said. “They’ve looked at the thermal protection system, they have looked at a lot of the (guidance, navigation and control) data from the flight. Obviously, the parachutes were very clean this flight. … Early this morning, we had our launch readiness review and everybody polled ‘go.'”

Crew-4 commander Kjell Lindgren, pilot Bob Hines, geologist-astronaut Jessica Watkins and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti plan to strap in atop the Falcon 9 just after 1 am Wednesday to await blastoff.

The Crew Dragon

The Crew Dragon

It will be the first rocket ride for Hines and Watkins. Lindgren and Cristoforetti are each veterans of a previous launch to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

“Getting to fly to space is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Lindgren said. “And to get to do it again is surreal. I know a little bit what to expect during launch. But for me, getting to launch from here, from the Kennedy Space Center, from a historic launch pad with an incredible legacy of exploration, is very, very meaningful.”

Assuming an on-time launch, the Crew Dragon will catch up with the space station Wednesday night, moving in for docking at the Harmony module’s space facing port around 8:15 pm

Another shot of the Crew-4 Falcon 9 rocket, poised for blastoff Wednesday to send four astronauts to the International Space Station.  / Credit: SpaceX

Another shot of the Crew-4 Falcon 9 rocket, poised for blastoff Wednesday to send four astronauts to the International Space Station. / Credit: SpaceX

The 16-hour 22-minute rendezvous was timed to get the Crew Dragon to the station well before a planned Russian spacewalk Thursday. As it is, the SpaceX capsule will dock while the station’s three cosmonauts are asleep.

Rather than waking them up early on the eve of a complex spacewalk, a traditional welcome-aboard ceremony for the Crew-4 astronauts will be delayed several hours until after the cosmonauts — Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov — get up to begin their busy day.

Lindgren’s crew is replacing Crew-3 commander Raja Chari, pilot Thomas Marshburn, submariner-turned-astronaut Kayla Barron and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, who launched to the space station last November.

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 astronauts plan to remain aboard the station until mid-September when another Crew Dragon will bring up their replacements.

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