Elon Musk’s SpaceX launches NASA Crew-4 astronaut mission

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon Freedom spacecraft launches the Crew-4 mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida April 27, 2022.

Aubrey Gemignani | NASA

SpaceX launched a team of astronauts for NASA early Wednesday morning, and Elon Musk’s company has sent 26 people into orbit in less than two years.

The Crew-4 mission, the company’s seventh manned spaceflight to date and the fourth operational crew launch for NASA, entered orbit after launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 3:52 a.m. ET. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried four astronauts into space on a Crew Dragon spacecraft called Freedom.

“The SpaceX team did a great job,” NASA Assistant Administrator Kathy Lueders said at a post-launch press conference.

A SpaceX capsule carrying NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hynes, Jessica Watkins and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti heads for the International Space Station. This is the first space flight for Hines and Watkins, and the second for Lindgren and Cristoforetti. SpaceX Freedom is scheduled to dock with the ISS about 16 hours after launch, around 8:15 pm ET.

Crew-4 astronauts (left to right): Jessica Watkins, Mission Specialist; Bob Hines, pilot; Kjell Lindgren, commander; and Samantha Cristoforetti, Mission Specialist.

Kim Shiflett | NASA

Crew-4 will complete a full-fledged mission to the ISS, spending about six months on board. The four will join the Crew-3 astronauts, which launched in November, shortly before the last crew’s Crew Dragon Endurance capsule undocks and returns to Earth.

Musk’s company launched Crew-4 less than 39 hours after the return of the private crew of Axyom Ax-1 astronauts, who splashed down in the Crew Dragon Endeavor capsule on Monday.

After the launch, SpaceX also landed the booster of its Falcon 9 rocket, which is the larger lower part of the rocket. This Falcon 9 booster has previously launched three missions, making it the fourth completed to date, and SpaceX plans to continue using it to launch future missions.

SpaceX developed its Crew Dragon spacecraft and finalized the Falcon 9 rocket as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which provided the company with more than $3 billion to develop the system and launch six operational missions.

Commercial Crew is a competitive program. NASA also has $4.8 billion in contracts with Boeing to develop its Starliner spacecraft, but the capsule is still in development due to uncrewed flight testing in December 2019, which has run into significant issues.

NASA emphasizes that SpaceX not only gives the US the ability to send astronauts into space, but also offers the agency an opportunity to save money. The agency expects to pay $55 million per astronaut to fly with Crew Dragon, as opposed to $86 million per astronaut to fly with the Russians. NASA estimated in 2020 that two private companies competing for contracts saved the agency between $20 billion and $30 billion in development costs.

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