In the final days of the year’s fourth month, an international crew of four men and women, atop a four-times-flown Falcon 9 booster and riding the brand-new Dragon Freedom are set to begin the fourth crew-carrying mission of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in Wednesday’s pre-dawn darkness. Commander Kjell Lindgren and Pilot Bob “Farmer” Hines, joined by fellow NASA flyer Jessica Watkins and record-setting Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will launch from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 3:52 a.m. EDT to kick off a day-long chasedown of the International Space Station (ISS). They are expected to remain aboard the sprawling orbital lab through September as part of Expedition 67.
Physician Lindgren, 49, selected as a member of NASA’s 2009 astronaut class (“The Chumps”), will be embarking on his second spaceflight. He previously logged 141 days in orbit during Expedition 45 in July-December 2015 and completed two sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), totaling more than 15 hours.
After his return from space, he served as chief of the Assigned Crew Branch of the Astronaut Office. Detailed to follow SpaceX’s Crew Dragon development since 2018, Lindgren served on the backup crew for both Demo-2 and Crew-1 two years ago.
He and Hines, a 47-year-old former Air Force test pilot and civilian NASA research pilot, selected into the astronaut corps in June 2017, were assigned to Crew-4 back in February of last year. Hines’ nickname, “Farmer”, is, by the soon-to-be astronaut’s own admission, “nothing to do with agriculture”. Rather, it is a holdover from his Air Force career. “Most callsigns have very little to do with something you did well,” Hines quipped.
The nickname owed its heritage to an F-15 training checkout, in which Hines was convinced he had achieved several simulated missile “kills”…only to discover he was in guns-only mode the whole time. And since Russia’s MiG-15 fighter—better known by its NATO designator as “Farmer”—carries guns, and not missiles, the nickname stuck.
Also named to Crew-4 was Cristoforetti, an Italian Air Force pilot who turns 45 years old today. As an astronaut of the European Space Agency (ESA), she logged 199 days in space during her 6.5-month Expedition 42/43 increment between November 2014 and mid-June 2015. In doing so, she became Italy’s first female spacefarer and at the time recorded the longest single spaceflight ever undertaken by a woman. The latter of those records has since been broken not once, but twice.
Cristoforetti was assigned to join Lindgren and Hines’ crew in March 2021, with an expectation that she would command the first part of Expedition 68 to become the first non-U.S. female station commander. However, a subsequent reshuffling of the ISS flight manifest shortened her increment and Crew-4 will remain part of Expedition 67, under the command of Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev, throughout their stay on the ISS. This came about in part due to NASA’s intent to run “direct handovers” of crews, following last November’s undesirable “indirect handover” between the outgoing Crew-2 and incoming Crew-3 which left the U.S. Operational Segment (USOS) reduced for a few days to just a single U.S. astronaut.
In the meantime, Crew-4 training expanded last fall when geologist Watkins—like Hines, a 2017 Astronaut Candidate (ASCAN) selectee—was assigned to fill the fourth seat aboard what was expected to be a brand-new Crew Dragon. When she reaches the space station, a couple weeks shy of her 34th birthday, Watkins will become the youngest ISS expedition crew member, eclipsing 34-year-old Kayla Barron, who is currently aboard. Prior to their assignment to Crew-4, Hines was assigned to the Exploration Branch of the Astronaut Office, whilst Watkins worked in the Vehicle Integration and Test Office (VITO).
Lindgren, Hines, Cristoforetti and Watkins will become the first Commercial Crew team to launch atop a four-times-flown Falcon 9 booster, tailnumbered “B1067”. All previous NASA crew flew atop first- or second-use boosters, although last fall’s historic all-civilian Inspiration4 and this month’s Ax-1 did so on third- and fifth-use boosters.
In recent remarks, NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate Kathy Lueders noted that the number of prior launches is of little significance. “What I prefer to fly on,” she said, “is a rocket that meets our requirements”.
B1067 entered service in June 2021 to lift the CRS-22 Cargo Dragon to the ISS under NASA’s second-round Commercial Resupply Services contract, followed by last November’s launch of Dragon Endurance and Crew-3 astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, Matthias Maurer and Kayla Barron and most recently Turkey’s powerful Türksat 5B communications satellite last December. “I just realized,” Hines tweeted last summer, as he and Lindgren posed in front of a salt-and-pepper-hued booster, “this flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket matches my hair color.”
Launch of Crew-4 was initially targeted for 15 April, but found its placeholder date progressively shifted to the right in response to delays of the Ax-1 launch, which eventually went airborne on 8 April but remained aloft several days longer than planned. “The number of things that can affect a launch is staggering and we are at the end of the whip,” Hines tweeted. “We are eager to go, but we’ll enjoy the extra few days with our families.”
On 16 April, Dragon Freedom was transported from SpaceX’s processing facilities at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., to historic Pad 39A, where she was installed atop the Falcon 9. The 230-foot-tall (70-meter) stack was rolled out to the pad on the 19th and was put through a customary Static Fire Test of the nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines. By that time, Lindgren, Hines, Cristoforetti and Watkins had arrived at KSC for launch.
Flying less than two weeks shy of the 61st anniversary of Freedom 7—a suborbital “hop” which saw Alan Shepard become America’s first man in space—the naming of Dragon Freedom is especially poignant. “The name,” said Lindgren, “celebrates a fundamental human right and the industry and innovation that emanate from the unencumbered human spirit”. The new ship features a reused composite heat-shield structure, four reused Draco thrusters, more robust trunk fins and USB charging points for the astronauts’ tablets.
And although the crew downplayed it, “freedom” carries added resonance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “My whole career, the Sound of Freedom was defined by jet noise,” Hines tweeted last month, adding that the name honors “the freedoms we hold so dear.” The crew’s patch, designed by Lindgren’s daughter, prominently features a dragonfly—“a beautiful and agile flyer,” the commander recently explained—as a motif of transformation and good fortune.
With the Ax-1 mission having finally returned to Earth yesterday, after 17 days in orbit, NASA and SpaceX desired a two-day gap between missions for data reviews, targeting the Crew-4 launch for 3:52 a.m. EDT Wednesday. That promises to create a new landing-to-launch record for two U.S. crew-carrying missions, eclipsing the five days, 22 hours and 46 minutes which elapsed between the return of shuttle Atlantis from STS-71 on 7 July 1995 and the launch of her sister ship Discovery on STS-70 on 13 July 1995.
Weather conditions for Wednesday are especially favorable, boasting a 90-percent probability of Mother Nature smiling kindly on Lindgren’s crew. A relaxed pressure gradient is expected to minimize coastal showers in time for the opening of the launch window, although in the event of a scrub tomorrow morning conditions are predicted to take a turn for the worse.
A frontal boundary is expected to push into Florida later on Wednesday, bringing increased cloud coverage and an elevated likelihood of rain. This drives down the probability of acceptable conditions to 40-percent-favorable on Thursday.
If Lindgren & Co. launch this week, April will close as only the second time that SpaceX has flown five missions within a single calendar month. Last December, the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization also executed five flights out of KSC, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. But April 2022 has proven particularly historic, marking the first time since September 1994 that two U.S. crewed orbital missions have flown within the same calendar month.
SpaceX may even squeeze in a sixth flight for April, with the seasoned B1062 core tentatively slated to lift a payload of Starlink internet communications satellites into low-Earth orbit, perhaps as soon as Friday night. Not only will B1062 be embarking on the sixth mission of her own career, but if she launches before April’s end she will establish a new record of just 21 days between a pair of flights by the same Falcon 9 booster. That will eclipse the 27 days which elapsed between two missions by B1060 in January and February of last year.
An on-time launch of Crew-4 in tomorrow’s pre-dawn darkness should see Dragon Freedom dock autonomously at the space-facing (or “zenith”) port of the Harmony node at 8:15 p.m. EDT. After pressurization and leak checks, hatches will be opened around 9:45 p.m. EDT and Lindgren, Hines, Cristoforetti and Watkins will be welcomed aboard the station by Expedition 67 Commander Tom Marshburn, his NASA crewmates Raja Chari and Kayla Barron, Germany’s Matthias Maurer and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergei Korsakov.
Current plans are for Marshburn, Chari, Barron and Maurer to spend about five days of “direct handover” operations with the new crew, before boarding their own Dragon Endurance to return to Earth around 2-3 May. They will thus wrap up almost six months aboard the ISS, having arrived last November. Marshburn will relinquish command of Expedition 67 to Artemyev, who will lead the station through his own crew’s return to Earth in October.
And for the seven-strong crew, a busy summer lies ahead. Their first USOS visitor, perhaps as soon as 20 May, will be the uncrewed second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) of Boeing’s troubled CST-100 Starliner, launched via an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Late next month, the crew will bid farewell to Northrop Grumman Corp.’s NG-17 Cygnus cargo ship, before welcoming a Russian Progress freighter and SpaceX’s CRS-25 Dragon—laden with two new sets of ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays (iROSA)—in early June.
In comments earlier this month, Hines alluded to the potential for up to two U.S. spacewalks in the summer to complete the iROSA upgrades. Another Cygnus, NG-18, is due to launch in mid-August.
Added to this raft of work, Cristoforetti may venture outside the station in a Russian space suit next month to complete the activation of ESA’s European Robotic Arm (ERA) on the exterior of the Nauka (“Science”) lab. In recent remarks, Cristoforetti stressed that she has only trained on Russia’s Orlan (“Sea Eagle”) space suit—and not the U.S. Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU)—during her training flow for Crew-4. As many as six Russian EVAs are scheduled between Thursday, 28 April and late summer to transfer and install hardware on Nauka and bring the station’s newest large module fully online.
Current expectations are for Lindgren, Hines, Cristoforetti and Watkins to remain aboard the ISS until early September. They will also enjoy a direct handover with Crew-5, which include NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, together with Japan’s Koichi Wakata and possibly Russia’s Anna Kikina. However, Kikina’s place on the mission has yet to be confirmed.