28 April 2022

History-making astronauts arrive at space station after thrilling Florida lift-off

28 April 2022

Four astronauts launched by SpaceX for Nasa have arrived at the International Space Station.

They docked 16 hours after a pre-dawn lift-off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where a crowd of spectators was thrilled by the spectacle.

They form the first Nasa crew comprised equally of men and women, including the first black woman making a long-term space flight, Jessica Watkins.

Kathy Lueders, Nasa’s space operations manager, said: “Anyone who saw it realised what a beautiful launch it was.”

After an express flight comparable to travelling from New York to Singapore, the crew will settle in for a five-month stay.

SpaceX has launched five crews for Nasa and two private trips in just under two years.

Elon Musk’s company is having an especially busy few weeks – having just finished taking three businessmen to and from the space station as Nasa’s first private guests.

Next week, the three Americans and German the new crew are replacing will return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsule.

Three Russians also live at the space station.

SpaceX Crew-4 astronauts, from left, pilot Bob Hines, mission specialist Jessica Watkins, commander Kjell Lindgren, and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, of Italy, wave as they leave the Operations and Checkout Building for a trip to Launch Complex 39-A (John Raoux/AP)

Both SpaceX and Nasa officials stressed they are taking it one step at a time to ensure safety.

The private mission that ended on Monday encountered no major problems, they said, although strong winds delayed the splashdown for a week.

SpaceX Launch Control wished the astronauts good luck and Godspeed moments before the Falcon rocket blasted off with the capsule, named Freedom by its crew.

“Our heartfelt thank you to every one of you that made this possible. Now let Falcon roar and Freedom ring,” radioed Nasa astronaut Kjell Lindgren, the commander.

Minutes later, the recycled booster had landed on an ocean platform and the capsule was safely orbiting Earth.

“It was a great ride,” Mr Lindgren said.

Nasa astronaut Kjell Lindgren waves (John Raoux/AP)

The SpaceX capsules are fully automated — which opens the space gates to a broader clientele — and designed to accommodate a wider range of body sizes.

At the same time, Nasa and the European Space Agency have been pushing for more female astronauts.

While two black women visited the space station during the shuttle era, neither moved in for a lengthy stay.

Ms Watkins, a geologist on Nasa’s shortlist for a future moon-landing mission, sees her mission as “an important milestone, I think, both for the agency and for the country”.

She credits supportive family and mentors — including Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space in 1992 — for “ultimately being able to live my dream”.

Also cheering on Ms Watkins was another geologist: Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, who walked on the moon in 1972.

Nasa astronaut Robert Hines waves to family and friends as he and crew mates depart the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building (Aubrey Gemignani, Nasa/AP)

She invited the retired astronaut to the launch along with his wife.

“We sort of consider ourselves the Jessica team,” he joked.

“Those of us who rode the Saturn V into space are a little bit jaded about the smaller rockets,” Mr Schmitt said after the SpaceX lift-off.

“But still, it really was something and on board was a geologist … I hope it will stand her in good stead for being part of one of the Artemis crews that go to the moon.”

Like Ms Watkins, Nasa astronaut and test pilot Bob Hines made his first spaceflight.

It is the second visit for Mr Lindgren, a doctor, and the European Space Agency’s lone female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, a former Italian air force fighter pilot.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 39-A (Chris O’Meara/AP)

Ms Cristoforetti turned 45 on Tuesday “so she really celebrates and is very happy with a big smile in the capsule”, said the European Space Agency’s director general, Josef Aschbacher.

“She’s really a role model and she’s doing an enormously fabulous job on doing exactly that.”

The just-completed private flight was Nasa’s first dip into space tourism after years of opposition.

The space agency said the three people who paid 55 million US dollars (about £44 million) each to visit the space station blended in while doing experiments and educational outreach.

They were accompanied by a former Nasa astronaut employed by Houston-based Axiom Space, which arranged the flight.

Photographers record the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as it lifts off (Chris O’Meara/AP)

“The International Space Station is not a vacation spot. It’s not an amusement park. It is an international laboratory and they absolutely understood and respected that purpose,” said Nasa flight director Zeb Scoville.

Nasa also hired Boeing to ferry astronauts after retiring the shuttles.

The company will take another shot next month at getting an empty crew capsule to the space station, after software and other problems fouled a 2019 test flight and prevented a redo last summer.

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