'Freedom' flies: SpaceX launches NASA, European astronaut mission from Florida

Crew-4 astronauts to arrive at International Space Station Wednesday night after 16-hour spaceflight

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. While most people across the U.S. were asleep, SpaceX launched four astronauts on their six-month space journey from Kennedy Space Center early Wednesday morning.

NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Jessica Watkins, Robert Hines and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti launched at 3:52 a.m. ET from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A. The Falcon 9 carried the Crew Dragon spacecraft into orbit, beginning the Crew-4 mission, NASA’s fourth under the Commercial Crew Program in partnership with SpaceX.

The launch was delayed allowing two days between the return of Axiom-1, the first all-private mission to the space station, due to poor weather conditions for a spacecraft landing in the Atlantic Ocean. The delays gave the private astronauts a bonus week in space on the ISS and caused a rippled effect delaying the Crew-4 launch and the Crew-3 return.

After waking up at 8 p.m. Tuesday, the Crew-4 astronauts enjoyed their final Earth meal for six months. The astronauts’ chosen foods ranged from mushroom and sausage risotto, steak, lobster, strawberry rhubarb, and key lime pie.


Wednesday’s liftoff marked the first launch of the last new Crew Dragon spacecraft in SpaceX’s fleet. The Crew-4 astronauts named their spacecraft Freedom. The vehicle joins Dragon Endeavour, Resilience and Endurance.

"It's time to let Freedom fly," SpaceX mission control told the astronauts minutes before launch.

"Let Falcon roar and Freedom ring," Lindgren replied.

Dragon Freedom will dock at the International Space Station Wednesday night, about 16 hours after launch. Lindgren, Watkins, Hines and Cristoforetti will be welcomed by the four Crew-3 astronauts who have been on the station since November. Three Russian cosmonauts will be sleeping when the Dragon docks, and the official welcome ceremony for the new arrivals will happen when they wake up.

It will be the first spaceflight for Hines and Watkins, part of the 2017 astronaut class nicknamed the "turtles." There are currently two other "turtles" on the station part of the Crew-3 mission, Kayla Barron and Raja Chari.

Shortly after liftoff, the astronauts revealed their zero-gravity indicators: a stuffed turtle and a monkey.

Watkins, who has a doctorate in geology, will be the first Black woman to stay on the ISS for a long-term mission. Despite some 250 people who have visited the space station, very few have been women of color. 

From 200 miles above Earth, she will get to view the planet's features from a perspective any geologist would dream of.

It was also rare that this spaceflight is half men and women.

"Diversity is something that as an agency, we continue to work on and look for areas of improvement and is absolutely important to us. You'll see it on this mission and you'll see it in future missions," ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano said ahead of the launch. "It's something that we're always going to continue to improve, and it makes us stronger agency and a stronger human spaceflight across the globe."


ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said recently the ESA opened astronaut applications and received 22,000, about 24% from women. Aschbacher said that 10 years ago women made up about 10% of applicants. 

He credited Cristoforetti, the only current female ESA astronaut, with inspiring other women to apply.

"She's a role model," Aschbacher said of the fighter pilot and mother of two. "The echo that she gets in Europe, but also beyond Europe, also here in the US, and in other countries, is quite remarkable. And a lot of people look up to her as a very good example of what can be achieved."

Cristoforetti and Lindgren both last launched to the ISS in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Ahead of the launch, the veteran space flyers said they were excited to launch from Kennedy Space Center.

Growing up, Lindgren and Cristoforetti recalled watching space shuttle launches and having a love for science fiction, which inspired them to become astronauts.

During her 2014 spaceflight, Cristoforetti read part of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and said she has more plans to share her love of sci-fi during this stay. 

The new astronauts will conduct about 300 experiments in the orbiting laboratory during their space-time.

The Crew-4 and Crew-3 astronauts will overlap for about five days. NASA and SpaceX are targeting the first week of May to bring home NASA astronauts Chari, Barron, Tom Marshburn and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer in Dragon Endurance.