SpaceX is preparing to launch NASA’s Crew-4 mission to the International Space Station, where the astronauts will spend the next six months running a diverse selection of scientific experiments in the microgravity environment.
Crew-4 includes NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, and Jessica Watkins, and also European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. Seated inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon, the crew will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Launch was previously scheduled for Saturday April 23, but weather delays have prevented the scheduled return of the Ax-1 mission, pushing the Crew-4 launch to no earlier than Tuesday April 26.
As the name suggests, Crew-4 is the fourth crew to launch as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Through the program, the space agency has been relying on Elon Musk’s private space company SpaceX to send its astronauts to the space station and back. With the launch, Watkins will make history as the first Black woman to embark on a longterm mission in space and the first to live and work on the ISS.
Once they’re up there, members of Crew-4 will rendezvous with NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, who all launched to the ISS in November 2021 as part of the agency’s Crew-3 mission. Also on the orbital outpost are Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, Sergey Korsakov, Anton Shkaplerov, and Pyotr Dubrov.
Crew-4 is packing a diverse scientific payload with research on improving astronaut health, developing artificial retinas, and growing plants without soil. Their on-orbit work will further the development of artificial human retinas for restoring people’s vision, as the microgravity environment could improve the quality and stability of the implants. The team will also use hydroponic (liquid-based) and aeroponic (air-based) techniques to grow plants without soil on the ISS, which could provide a source of nutrition for astronauts during long-duration space missions. A portable device called rHealth will be used to monitor the health of the astronauts during their six-month stint on the ISS; the system uses lasers to sort and identify cells, analyze cell counts, and diagnose health disorders such as blood cancers, according to NASA.
Before Crew-4 can launch, however, the team must await the departure of the first all-private astronaut team to the ISS. Members of Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission arrived at the space station on April 9 and were originally meant to spend eight days in low-Earth orbit (it’s now day 11 for the Ax-1 mission). The four-man crew was slated to depart the ISS on Tuesday, but bad weather has prolonged their stay at the station until Saturday April 23 at the earliest.