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Years in the making, NASA certifies SpaceX’s Dragon ahead of astronaut launch

SpaceX targeting Sunday at 7:27 p.m. to launch 4 astronauts on Falcon 9 rocket

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – NASA and SpaceX have completed a critical review ahead of Sunday’s launch from Florida with four astronauts to the International Space Station.

NASA said managers for both the U.S. space agency and SpaceX completed the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) on Tuesday afternoon, giving SpaceX the go-ahead to proceed with the Crew-1 launch planned for Saturday from Kennedy Space Center. The launch was later delayed to Sunday at 7:27 p.m. due to weather.

Another milestone for SpaceX was also announced Tuesday as NASA has officially given the Crew Dragon spacecraft human flight certification.

“That is a culmination of a ton of work that is NASA saying to SpaceX you have shown us that you can deliver a crew transportation capability that meets our requirements,” NASA’s head of human spaceflight Kathy Lueders said. “It’s really part of this bigger certification strategy that says, 'You can safely fly our crew members to and from International Space Station.”

[ MORE COVERAGE: Dragon riders: Meet the next astronauts to launch from Florida with SpaceX | SpaceX launches astronauts into orbit, returning human spaceflight to Florida]

NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Japanese Space Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi are at Kennedy Space Center preparing for their launch from the space center’s historic launchpad 39A.

SpaceX launches astronauts for NASA and its international partners, under the commercial crew program, using its Falcon 9 rocket and the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The astronaut crew named this space vehicle Resilience, fitting for the trying times amid a global pandemic.

Following the review, Lueders said the FRR is the first “of our final countdown steps towards flight and an important checkpoint for us to make sure we’re ready to go into the final operational phase.”

Lueders described the work leading up to this day as inspiring.

“This is a very exciting day, you know, for those of us that have been looking forward to this day for a really long time," Lueders said. "It is pretty inspiring to sit here in this room as they’re really getting ready to fly Crew-1.”

This launch will mark the first operational mission for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. A test flight in May with two NASA astronauts to the space station marked the first astronaut launch from Florida since 2011.

DRAGON GETS FINAL NASA APPROVAL

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Crew-1 mission arrives at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. (Image: Nasa Commercial Crew/Twitter)
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Crew-1 mission arrives at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. (Image: Nasa Commercial Crew/Twitter) (WKMG)

Ahead of this flight, NASA officials certified the Dragon for human spaceflight, something SpaceX has been working toward since it was selected to fly astronauts in 2014.

“We are honored to be the nation’s launch provider for crew mission to take care of the responsibility that NASA has entrusted to us to carry American astronauts to and from the space station,” SpaceX senior director of human spaceflight Benji Reed said on Tuesday. “Honestly, we couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve already accomplished together.”

Lueders said it was a “big step" for the private company and NASA.

Reed said during the next 15 months, SpaceX will fly seven crew and cargo Dragon missions for NASA. In addition to now flying astronauts, SpaceX has been making supply runs to the ISS for NASA for seven years.

“Starting with Crew-1 there will be a continuous presence of SpaceX Dragons on-orbit,” Reed said. “Every time we launch a Dragon, there will be two Dragons in space, simultaneously, for extended periods of time.”

NEXT STEPS TO LAUNCH

SpaceX delayed the engine test-fire of the Falcon 9 from Tuesday to Wednesday to replace a valve on the rocket’s second stage.

If the static fire happens Wednesday, the astronauts will suit up and perform a dress rehearsal of the launch and countdown on Thursday.

NASA officials said the weather launch was looking good, despite the recent flooding and rain from Tropical Storm Eta swirling off the Gulf Coast.

If there is a delay, a backup launch window is also available Monday evening.

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