A SpaceX rocket and spacecraft blasted off early Wednesday with four astronauts bound for the International Space Station (ISS), including the first black woman to join the station’s crew.

Liftoff occurred at 3:52 am ET. The astronauts, aboard their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, will spend the day flying freely through orbit before docking with the ISS around 8 p.m. ET.

This mission, called Crew-4, marks a return to manned launches that SpaceX conducts in partnership with NASA after the company wrapped up the first fully private mission to the space station for wealthy customers on Monday.

On board are NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines and Jessica Watkins, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who is flying on behalf of the European Space Agency.

This is everything you need to know about Crew-4.

What makes this flight historic?

Jessica Watkins will become the first black woman to complete such a mission.

Although more than a dozen African Americans, including four Black women, have traveled to space since Guion Bluford became the first to do so in 1983, no Black woman has had the opportunity to live and work in space for an extended period of time. while the ISS has allowed it to more than 200 astronauts since the year 2000.

“I think this is definitely an important milestone for both our agency [espacial] and for the country,” Watkins said during a news conference last month. “I think it’s really just a tribute to the legacy of the black female astronauts that have come before me, as well as the exciting future that lies ahead.”

Watkins has a long history with NASA. He began his career there as an intern and previously held positions at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he worked with the Curiosity Mars rover. . As a trained geologist, she has studied the surface of the red planet.

Watkins’ teammates refer to her by the nickname “Watty”.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule Falcon 9 rocket used to launch the Crew-4 mission as seen on the launch pad Saturday, April 23, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Who else is going on this mission?

The crew for this mission is one of the first to include as many women as men.

Cristoforetti, who was on a previous mission to the ISS in 2014-2015, is the only woman in the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps. But Cristoforetti told reporters last month that the situation “will be over very soon.”

“We definitely hope to have great female colleagues by the end of the year,” he added.

Cristoforetti, an Italian Air Force veteran who earned her fighter pilot wings, joined the European Space Agency in 2009.

Hines is a 22-year veteran of the US Air Force, and this will be her first time in space since she was selected to NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017.

Lindgren, the commander of this mission, is certified in emergency medicine, and before being selected to fly himself, he used to work as a flight surgeon on the ground at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, supporting other astronaut missions. Lindgren was born in Taiwan and spent much of his childhood in England before moving to the United States and attending the United States Air Force Academy.

This group of four astronauts have spent months training together, and even took time to bond extracurricularly. Watkins noted that they took a kayak trip in eastern Washington “just to spend some time getting to know each other and understanding how we all function … and what motivates each of us, and I think that’s going to be really crucial.”

“We get along very well. It’s a pleasure to have these guys on this team,” Lindgren added.

How do they get into space?

The crew travels to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule which, since entering service in 2020, has launched seven manned missions.

Although SpaceX designed Crew Dragon to be reusable and three capsules are already in service, Crew-4 will fly aboard a new spacecraft.

Astronauts can select the name of their capsule and chose Crew Dragon “Freedom” for their ship.

The Crew Dragon was developed by SpaceX under a $2.6 billion contract with NASA as part of the “Commercial Crew Program.” The idea behind the program was to move NASA into a client role, allowing private companies to design, build and test a new spacecraft to serve NASA astronauts while also giving the company ownership of the vehicle. .

Since SpaceX controls the vehicle, it has the ability to sell seats to whomever it wants, hence the totally private mission the company just wrapped up and a previous space tourism mission that took off in September last year.

At NASA, the program has been considered a huge success and the space agency is adopting the same contracting method for several vehicles involved in its efforts to explore the Moon.

What will they do in space?

After arriving Wednesday night, the crew will be greeted by the group of astronauts already on board the ISS, including three NASA astronauts and one European Space Agency astronaut who were part of the Crew-3 mission. from SpaceX, and three Russian cosmonauts.

There will be a five-day delivery period, during which the Crew-3 astronauts will help the Crew-4 astronauts get settled, before Crew-3 returns home aboard their own SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Then the Crew-4 astronauts will get to work on all the science experiments and space station maintenance tasks that are on their to-do list.

“Experiments will include studies of aging immune systems, specific alternatives to organic materials, and cardiorespiratory effects during and after prolonged exposure to microgravity,” according to NASA. “These are just some of the more than 200 science experiments and technology demonstrations that will take place during his mission.”

Crew-3 is scheduled to return from space in September, shortly after SpaceX launches its Crew-5 mission.

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