Static fire test, dress rehearsal complete for Crew-6 launch

NASA commander Steve Bowen, pilot Woody Hoburg, and mission specialists Sultan Alneyadi and Andrey Fedyaev inside the crew access arm at Launch Complex 39A during a countdown rehearsal early Friday. Credit: SpaceX

Led by a three-time space shuttle flier and former Navy submarine officer, the four-man team set to ride into orbit Monday on SpaceX’s Dragon Endeavour spacecraft rode to the launch pad in Florida in new black Tesla Model Xs and took their seats inside the commercial crew capsule Thursday night for a countdown dress rehearsal.

The four-man crew, commanded by veteran NASA astronaut Stephen Bowen, completed the practice countdown run early Friday, then departed pad 39A to return to crew quarters. With the crew members safely away from the pad, SpaceX began loading densified kerosene and liquid oxygen into the Falcon 9 rocket and completed a seven-second test-firing of its booster’s nine Merlin engines.

With the dress rehearsal and static fire test, SpaceX checked off two more milestones on the path to launch of NASA’s Crew-6 mission to the International Space Station, scheduled for 1:45 a.m. EST (0645 GMT) Monday. Assuming launch occurs Monday, the Crew-6 astronauts will arrive at the International Space Station with docking Tuesday at 2:38 a.m. EST (0738 GMT).

Bowen, 59, is a retired U.S. Navy captain who served on submarines before NASA selected him as an astronaut candidate in 2000. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Bowen has logged 40 days in space on three space shuttle missions, most recently in 2011 on the final flight of the shuttle Discovery.

Pilot Warren “Woody” Hoburg, will sit to Bowen’s right during the the Dragon spacecraft’s launch and docking. The 37-year-old is from the Pittsburgh area, and earned a Ph.D in computer science and electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. Hoburg was a professor at MIT before he joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017, and is making his first flight to space on the Crew-6 mission.

Mission specialists Sultan Alneyadi and Andrey Fedyaev, both spaceflight rookies, round out the crew.

Alneyadi, 41, was selected as one of the United Arab Emirates’ first two astronauts in 2018, and will become the first person from the Arab world to live and work on the International Space Station for a long-duration flight. Fedyaev, also 41, is a former Russian Air Force pilot who will serve in the Russian segment of the ISS, riding to and from the outpost on a NASA-funded mission as part of a seat exchange agreement between the U.S. space agency and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency.

The four crew members will live on the space station until late August.

Bowen and his crewmates put on their custom-fitted SpaceX-made pressure suits for the dress rehearsal Thursday night, then left their crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center for the 20-minute car ride to pad 39A. They rode an elevator up the launch pad tower and walking across the crew access arm to board the Dragon spacecraft.

The dress rehearsal is a customary step before all SpaceX astronaut launches, giving the crew members and their ground support team an opportunity to practice their procedures before the real countdown.

The astronauts rode to the launch pad in two black Tesla Model Xs, a new addition to SpaceX’s astronaut support fleet. The company previously used white Tesla Model Xs for astronaut transportation to and from the launch pad.

SpaceX followed the crew practice run with a hold-down test-firing of the Falcon 9’s Merlin 1D main engines at 5:45 a.m. EST (0145 GMT) Friday.

Kerosene and liquid oxygen flowed into the Falcon 9 beginning about 35 minutes prior to ignition time for Friday’s static fire test. SpaceX engineers in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center at Kennedy observed and managed the operation.

With the static fire test complete, SpaceX drained the propellants from the Falcon 9. Engineers analyzed the data collected during the test-firing to make sure all systems performed well.

The Crew-6 mission will be SpaceX’s sixth operational crew rotation flight to the space station, and SpaceX’s ninth human spaceflight mission overall, including the Demo-2 test flight in 2020 with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, and two fully commercial astronaut missions.

The Dragon Endeavour spacecraft set to fly on the Crew-6 mission will be going to space for the fourth time, more than any other SpaceX crew capsule to date. The same vehicle was used on the Demo-2 test flight with Hurley and Behnken in 2020.

Nine engines on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster ignited at 5:45 a.m. EST (1045 GMT) Friday for a static fire test ahead of the Crew-6 launch. Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 booster assigned to the Crew-6 launch, numbered B1078, is making its first flight.

The arrival of the Crew-6 mission at the space station will temporarily raise the size of the lab’s crew to 11. Bowen’s crew will replace the Crew-5 mission, which has been at the station since October.

The Crew-5 mission — commanded by NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, with pilot Josh Cassada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina — will return to Earth on their SpaceX-owned Dragon spacecraft around March 6, weather permitting. The Dragon spacecraft will target a splashdown off the coast of Florida.

When the mission takes off, the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft will head northeast from Florida’s Space Coast to line up with the space station’s orbital track. Flying parallel to the U.S. East Coast, the Falcon 9 will shed its first stage about two-and-a-half minutes into the mission, allowing the booster to descend back to a landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

The rocket’s single-engine upper stage will fire more than six minutes to place the Dragon spacecraft and four crew members in a preliminary orbit. The Dragon will separate from the rocket a few minutes later, open its nose cone to reveal its docking mechanism, then execute a series of Draco thruster burns to fine-tune its path to the space station.

The Crew-6 astronauts prepare to board SpaceX’s Tesla Model X crew transportation vehicles during a dress rehearsal Thursday night. Credit: NASA

The Dragon capsule will dock with the zenith, or upward-facing, port on the space station’s Harmony module around 2:38 a.m. EST (0738 GMT) Tuesday, assuming the launch occurs Monday.

There’s a 95% chance of favorable weather for launch of the Crew-6 mission Monday, according to the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral. NASA and SpaceX have a backup launch opportunity Tuesday.

There is a low risk of unfavorable upper level wind shear, and a low to moderate risk of adverse weather conditions along the Falcon 9’s ascent corridor northeast over the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX officials will watch the downrange weather to ensure it is acceptable for landing of the first stage booster, and safe enough for the Dragon capsule to splash down in the event of an in-flight abort.

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