Two NASA astronauts, a Japanese space veteran, and Russia's lone female cosmonaut, flew to the Kennedy Space Center Saturday to prepare for launch Wednesday on a flight to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
Their Falcon 9 rocket was rolled to the top of historic pad 39A before dawn Saturday and rotated vertical just after 12 p.m. Eastern. A few minutes later, Crew 5 commander Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and cosmonaut Anna Kikina landed on the spaceport runway after a flight from Houston to begin final preparations.
"First of all, my prayers and thoughts go out to all the people in Florida who are affected by the devastating hurricane," Wakata said. "I hope with this launch, we will brighten up the skies over Florida a little bit for everyone."
The astronauts plan to don their pressure suits and strap into the Crew Dragon spacecraft Sunday morning for a dress-rehearsal countdown. Later in the day, SpaceX engineers plan to test fire the Falcon 9's first stage engines to verify their readiness for flight.
If all goes well, Mann and her crewmates will strap in for real around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to brace for launch just after 12 p.m., the moment the Earth's rotation carries the rocket into the plane of the space station's orbit.
It will take the crew about 29 hours to catch up with the lab complex, moving in for an automated docking at the station's forward port around 5 a.m. Thursday.
Standing by to welcome them on board will be Expedition 68 commander Samantha Cristoforetti and her Crew 4 crewmates — Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins — along with Soyuz MS-22/68S crew members Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitri Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who arrived at the station Sept. 21.
Wakata is making his fifth space flight, while Mann, Cassada and Kikina, the first Russian cosmonaut to fly aboard a Crew Dragon, are space rookies.
Rubio's addition to the Soyuz crew, and Kikina's addition to Crew 5, were the result of a recent agreement between NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, that's designed to ensure at least one U.S. astronaut and one Russian cosmonaut are aboard the station at all times.
Without such an agreement, a medical emergency — or some other problem that might force a Crew Dragon or Soyuz to depart early — could leave the station with an all-Russian or all-NASA-sponsored crew without the expertise to operate the other nation's systems.
Kikina said she was thrilled by the opportunity.
"I want to share with you my feelings," she said in broken English. "I really want to say, from my side, and to everybody who made for me that unbelievable, incredible opportunity to be a part of our joint, big something, for all of us. And to be a part of that great, for me, maybe for you also, Crew 5. I really love my crewmates, I really feel comfortable."
Kikina, who joined the Roscosmos Cosmonaut Corps in 2012, said she was stunned when told she was being assigned to Crew 5.
"My leaders just appoint me and told me, do you want to be part of Crew 5? Yes. Why not? But I was so surprised."