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Dress-rehearsal countdown sets stage for SpaceX Crew Dragon launch

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NASA is planning to launch the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Sunday evening. Watch it live here. Our original story appears below.

Four astronauts launching this weekend aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft strapped in atop a Falcon 9 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center Thursday for a dress rehearsal countdown while engineers reviewed preparations and kept tabs on off-shore weather in the wake of Tropical Storm Eta.

Crew-1 commander Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, wearing futuristic-looking SpaceX pressure suits, were driven to launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in white Tesla SUVs, just as they will be Saturday, weather permitting, for a launch at 7:49 p.m. ET.

Crew-1 astronauts arrive in Tesla SUVs for a dress-rehearsal countdown at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Their launch is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 14. NASA/Joel Kowsky

With the astronauts strapped in side by side, monitoring high-tech touch-screen displays in the Crew Dragon capsule they named "Resilience," SpaceX launch controllers monitored the practice countdown from Firing Room 4 in NASA's Launch Control Center three miles from the pad.

The next major milestone will come Friday when NASA and SpaceX managers and engineers, following strict coronavirus protocols, hold a formal launch readiness review to make a final assessment of the team's readiness for flight.

Forecasters are predicting a 70% chance of acceptable weather Saturday evening at the Kennedy Space Center. But the outlook is less certain when it comes to winds and sea states in the Atlantic Ocean along the northeasterly trajectory the Falcon 9 will follow boosting the Crew Dragon into the space station's orbit.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands poised for launch on a mission to send four astronauts to the International Space Station. Liftoff is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. SpaceX

Relatively calm seas are required for recovery of the Falcon 9's first stage, which the company plans to re-use for the next Crew Dragon flight six months from now. And generally benign conditions are required along the entire flight path in case of a malfunction that could force the crew to make an emergency splashdown.

"We are obviously looking at the weather, weather is a big deal, weather for multiple areas," Kathy Lueders, NASA's chief of space exploration, told Spaceflight Now Friday. "The droneship that we need where the first stage will land is actually headed out today. And with the way the seas are, and the way Eta is, we're kind of watching how quickly that droneship can make it out."

If the droneship is not on station in time, the launch most likely will be delayed.

"Landing weather for the first stage is a big deal," Lueders said. "It's the stage we'll be using for Crew-2, so we care about it. Not that we don't care about them ever, but this is an important stage."

After crossing Florida Wednesday, Tropical Storm Eta was expected to follow a path paralleling the East Coast up to North Carolina and then on out into the Atlantic. By Saturday morning, the center of the storm should be well out to sea east of Boston.

SpaceX monitors data from some 50 buoys along the trajectory that measure winds and wave height, data that will be analyzed before a final decision to proceed with launch.

Left to right: NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins and Soichi Noguchi are scheduled to launch Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station.  NASA/Joel Kowsky
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