SpaceX Crew-4
Astronauts of the SpaceX Crew-4 mission (from left to right): Bob Hines, Samantha Cristoforetti, Jessica Watkins, and Kjell Lindgren. Credit: ESA

SpaceX Crew-4

27/04/2022Written by Dhara Patel

The fourth SpaceX operational mission in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, designed to transport crew to the International Space station.

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Since 2020, SpaceX have operated and provided spacecraft for NASA as a commercial service to take crew to the International Space Station (ISS). In this program known as the Commercial Crew Program, the Crew Dragon module – SpaceX’s spacecraft capable of carrying up to seven astronauts, is launched atop of their steadfast Falcon 9 rocket. On the program’s fourth operational flight known as SpaceX Crew-4, three NASA astronauts and one ESA astronaut blasted off to the ISS. 

The Crew

The Crew
Mission Commander Kjell Lindgren (left) and mission Pilot Bob Hines (right). Credit: SpaceX
The Crew
Mission Specialists Jessica Watkins (left) and Samantha Cristoforetti (right). Credit: SpaceX

Returning as mission commander on his second stay on the ISS, NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren made his first expedition to the station in 2015, where he spent over 140 days in space, conducted two spacewalks, and along with his fellow crew members, sampled the first space-grown red romaine lettuce in orbit! 

Robert ‘Bob’ Hines was selected as the mission’s pilot. Prior to the Crew-4 mission, Hines’ spaceflight time stood at zero, but having served 18 years on active duty or in the reserves of the Air Force, along with several years as a research pilot for NASA, he has logged more than 3,500 hours of flight time in over 40 types of aircraft. 

Jessica Watkins joined as mission specialist on her first trip to space and is set to become the first Black woman in history to fly in an extended space mission, with Crew-4. As a trained geoscientist whose work has spanned from Earth to Mars, Watkins has also been selected as one of NASA’s Artemis astronauts who could fly to the Moon. 

Samantha Cristoforetti was selected as a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut in 2009, in the same class as British astronaut Tim Peake. On her first mission to the ISS which launched in 2014, she became only the second female ESA astronaut to visit the station and on her return to the Earth orbiting platform with Crew-4, she will serve as a mission specialist alike to Watkins. 

Mission Patch

Mission Patch
SpaceX Crew-4 mission patch. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

It’s a longstanding tradition that each space mission has its own patch and for Crew-4, a dragonfly sits at the centre with the free-flying Crew Dragon capsule at the thorax. The capsule appears suspended in low earth orbit on its way to the ISS. Lindgren describes the dragonfly as being a “beautiful and agile flyer” which symbolises transformation and good fortune. 

Around the outside, the names of the four astronauts are printed and four bright stars in the background represent the “four crewmembers’ families and their steadfast patience, love and support”. The numerous other stars are a nod to the countless team members at NASA, SpaceX, and other partner teams that have made the mission possible. 

Mission and Experiments

Mission and Experiments
Simulation showing the blurry vision of a grocery store aisle for someone with macular degeneration. The macula (a small spot near the centre of the eye’s light-sensing retina) lets us see objects that are directly in front of us and helps provide sharp, central vision. Credit: National Eye Institute, NIH
Mission and Experiments
The Smart-Tex shirts that incorporate sensors to monitor cardiovascular activity and transmit the data through a wireless network. Credit: DSI KG/Cri
Mission and Experiments
Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti trains for a spacewalk in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett

On their six-month stint on the ISS, the Crew-4 astronauts will carry out a number of scientific experiments, not only to further prepare for human exploration on the Moon, Mars, and beyond, but to also benefit society on Earth. 

Amongst many other experiments, they’ll be studying how microgravity affects the aging of the immune system and how it affects the ability of the heart and lungs system to transport oxygen to the muscles around the body to provide energy needed for physical activity. 

They’ll also be taking up with them the ‘Protein-Based Artificial Retina Manufacturing’ experiment – which will assess how artificial retinas and retinal implants could be manufactured in microgravity. This technology could be useful for people on Earth with retinal degenerative diseases (like macular degeneration), but also for long term space travel where it is known that astronauts suffer from vision changes. 

The European segment of the mission is called Minerva (named after the Roman goddess of wisdom, science, and technology). As part of that, the German Space Agency (DLR) investigation called Wireless Compose-2 will see Smart-Tex shirts sent up with Crew-4. The shirts have sensors, wiring, and a communications kit fitted to them allowing wireless transmission of data to a central hub. The idea is that rather than use sonography or CT scans to measure cardiovascular activity, astronauts can use wearable technology like the Smart-Tex shirt to have their relative blood pressure, heart contraction rates, and valve opening and closing times monitored more easily – an application that could then be used on Earth. 

We can also look forward to a pair of spacewalks from the astronauts of Crew-4 where they will work to help prepare the ISS for new solar arrays which will boost the total power supply available to the station. 

Commercial Crew Program

Commercial Crew Program
The Boeing Starliner spacecraft at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in preparation for its Orbital Flight Test in 2019. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston
Commercial Crew Program
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon module preparing to dock with the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

After the retirement of the Space shuttle in 2011, NASA’s only means of getting to the ISS was with the Russian Soyuz. To end this sole reliance and to shift away from internal development, the agency looked to commercial providers for the development of transport systems to the ISS. 

Following a series of open competitions, NASA awarded separate contracts to both SpaceX and Boeing to provide crewed (and cargo) transportation to the ISS as a commercial service. 

In 2020, SpaceX started providing this service using their Crew Dragon spacecraft with a contract to operate six missions. Crew-5 is due to launch in the autumn of 2022 and Crew-6 in 2023. 

Boeing have been working on the development of their Starliner spacecraft (the equivalent of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule). It was due for its first uncrewed test flight in December 2019, which then got pushed back. During the second attempt in August 2021, stuck valves in the spacecrafts propulsion system drew the test to a halt. The next unpiloted test flight of Starliner is scheduled for 19 May 2022. 

As a result of the delays with the Starliner system, NASA have extended their contract with SpaceX to maintain flights to the ISS. In February 2022, NASA announced three additional operational missions, Crew-7, Crew-8 , and Crew-9 which will see SpaceX transporting astronauts to and from the ISS until March 2028.

The End of Crew Dragon Production

The End of Crew Dragon Production
Crew-4 astronauts in front of their Dragon, capsule Freedom, whilst still in production. Credit: SpaceX
The End of Crew Dragon Production
Elon Musk’s interplanetary transport system – Starship. Credit: SpaceX

Crew-4 will be launching in a new Crew Dragon spacecraft which they have named Freedom to celebrate, as described by mission commander Lindgren, the “fundamental human right, and the industry and innovation that emanate from the unencumbered human spirit”. 

SpaceX will remain able to create more of the astronaut capsules if needed, but in March 2022 SpaceX announced they would be ending production of their Dragon capsule to focus on Starship – a fully reusable transport system that will be used to ferry people to the Moon and Mars.  

Components for refurbishment of the Dragon capsules will still be manufactured, and Freedom, along with the three other existing Dragon modules (Endeavour, Resilience, and Endurance) will continue to be used to ferry astronauts to low earth orbit. 

Bon voyage to Crew-4 and Crew Dragon Freedom on its maiden flight!

About the author: Dhara Patel is a Space Expert at the National Space Centre.