NASA managers wrapped up a two-day flight readiness review Friday, clearing SpaceX and the agency's Commercial Crew Program to press ahead with the launch of a Crew Dragon spacecraft on Wednesday that will carry two astronauts on a test flight to the International Space Station.
The long-awaited mission will mark the first launch of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil since the space shuttle's final flight in 2011 and the first flight ever carried out using a commercially developed spacecraft owned and operated by a private company.
"We did a thorough review of all the systems and all the risks, and it was unanimous on the board that we are go for launch," said NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, NASA's highest-ranking civil servant and chair of the readiness review.
"It is really exciting to be launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time in nine years. I know it's been a long, challenging road, and I cannot tell you how proud I am of (the) NASA-SpaceX team."
Jurczyk stood in for Douglas Loverro, NASA's former head of the agency's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, who unexpectedly resigned last week, apparently because of issues involving recent NASA contracts for new moon landers.
In a Twitter post before the FRR began, Loverro, smiling and showing the "live long and prosper" Vulcan salute from "Star Trek," said "I'm proud of all team HEO has done, & all they will do. I hope I served them well and perhaps pointed the way. I'd rather be 'marred by dust & sweat & blood' than to stand among the 'cold and timid souls.' Go @Commercial_Crew LL&P, Out."
Jurczyk, a widely respected aerospace engineer and former director of NASA's Langley Research Center, said the FRR team team went over "all the systems on the spacecraft, on the launch vehicle, on the ground, and ensured that all the issues had been closed satisfactorily, and they were."
A little more than an hour after Jurczyk's update, SpaceX engineers carried out a short test firing of the Falcon 9's first stage engines at Pad 39A, sending billowing clouds of exhaust into the sky in a standard preflight test of the rocket's propulsion system and other critical components.
Astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken flew to the Kennedy Space Center from Houston on Wednesday to begin final preparations for launch. With the hot-fire test complete, they planned to don their spacesuits and strap into the Crew Dragon at the pad Saturday for a dress-rehearsal countdown.
The coronavirus pandemic forced NASA to implement stricter-than-usual quarantine protocols throughout the final months of the crew's training, restrictions that complicated work at the Kennedy and Johnson space centers and at SpaceX's Hawthorne, California, headquarters.
Asked what their launch might mean to a country still in the grip of a pandemic, Behnken told reporters in a teleconference "the thing that we most want to bring home is that we're still able to do this and perform it safely."
"You know, COVID did drive some changes in how we were conducting our operations and preparing for this mission," he said. "We as a nation, all across the nation ... had to figure out a way to still pull this mission off safely, still prepare for it safely, still work together to accomplish it, even with all the constraints.
"I hope the nation can look at this and recognize that this is something we're still going to accomplish. This is still something that we're going to be successful at. And we're going to do it in the face of the pandemic. ... Where there's a will, there's a way, and ... we're just proud to be a part of it."
SpaceX plans to hold a final launch readiness review Monday to go over engine hot-fire data and any remaining open items while space station managers review plans for Hurley and Behnken's stay aboard the lab complex.
If all goes well, the astronauts will strap in and blast off for real at 4:33:33 p.m. ET Wednesday. Docking with the space station is expected is expected around 11:40 a.m. Thursday. NASA managers have not decided how long the mission might last, but Hurley and Behnken are expected to remain in orbit until late August or early September.