Crew Dragon “Freedom” Brings Crew-4 Home

The Crew Dragon named “Freedom” nailed its first crewed mission while bringing Crew-4 in for a successful splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, just off Florida’s east coast near Jacksonville.

Crew-4 spent six months on the International Space Station and returned to Earth on October 14, 2022. NASA and SpaceX officials say the splashdown went smoothly.

“From my perspective, watching the vehicle data those five and a half months was delightfully boring, while the crew got to do all the exciting work onboard ISS,” SpaceX Director of Crew Dragon Management Sarah Walker said during a post-splashdown news conference.

In the aerospace world, boring is a good thing. Historically, adrenaline-inducing events can range from a false reading on a flight controller’s screen to the loss of a crew in an accident.

Past problems with the Crew Dragon included an incident in which the heat shield ablated away more than expected in some places during reentry. The problem has since been fixed.

SpaceX also previously looked into a parachute that delayed opening during reentry. The issue first showed up during the Crew-2 reentry and happened again during the reentry of a Cargo Dragon carrying valuable results of scientific experiments. The Dragons are typically equipped with four parachutes and one NASA official initially speculated that three of them could have gotten in the way of the fourth.

During the Demo-2 mission, some boats carrying curiosity-seekers got too close to the spacecraft after the Crew Dragon splashed down. Demo-2 was the first time that the Crew Dragon carried a crew into space and the final test flight before NASA declared the spacecraft operational. NASA has since worked it out with the Coast Guard to establish a better perimeter to protect the spacecraft after it splashes down.

Crew-4 included NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. They conducted 250 scientific experiments during their six months on the International Space Station. Just before they left the ISS, they spent a few days handling handover procedures with the newly arrived Crew-5.

Crew-4 returned home only five hours after departing the ISS, which is fast for a return from the space station.

“This was actually the fastest return we’ve done on a crew mission — on any mission — to date,” said Sarah Walker.

Crew-5 will continue conducting scientific experiments as part of Expeditions 68 and 69. Some of them are valuable biological and medical experiments that could improve treatments for serious health conditions on Earth. They will return home in Spring 2023, not long after Crew-6 arrives.

The International Space Station is also expecting a visit from Axiom-2 in Spring 2023. This second fully private mission to the ISS will feature retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson’s return to the space station. The Axiom missions are part of preparations for adding new inflatable modules to the ISS. These modules will eventually be spun off into a privately owned space station that NASA can rent space on.

Axiom Space is organizing the private Axiom flights. The Commercial Crew flights are part of a contract between NASA and SpaceX. The ULA has a Commercial Crew contract too, but it’s still working on getting the Starliner ready for crewed missions. NASA expanded SpaceX’s Commercial Crew contract due to delays in Starliner development and to ensure access to the International Space Station amid ongoing diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and NASA.