SpaceX test-fires rocket ahead of Crew-2 astronaut launch for NASA

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket test fires its nine first-stage engines atop Launch Pad 39A of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 17, 2021. The rocket will launch NASA's Crew-2 astronaut mission for NASA on April 22.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket test fires its nine first-stage engines atop Launch Pad 39A of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 17, 2021. The rocket will launch NASA's Crew-2 astronaut mission for NASA on April 22. (Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX has fired up the rocket that will ferry its next crew of astronauts to the International Space Station next week. 

The private spaceflight company conducted a static-fire test on Saturday (April 22) of its Falcon 9 rocket at Pad 39A here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The test is one of the last major milestones ahead of a planned launch on Thursday (April 22).

The routine preflight test kicked off the countdown to the highly-anticipated flight of the company's second operational mission of its Dragon crew capsule, called Crew-2. The spacecraft is bound for the International Space Station, carrying with it two NASA astronauts and one astronaut each from the Japanese and European space agencies. 

The test occurred as expected in the predawn hours on Saturday. Smoke and fire billowed briefly as the rocket's nine Merlin 1D engines were lit. The brief ignition, known as a static-fire test, is a standard part of prelaunch procedures and one of the last major milestones before liftoff.

Live updates: SpaceX's Crew-2 astronaut mission for NASA
SpaceX's Crew-2 astronauts arrive at launch site

During the test, the Falcon 9 is held down on the pad while its nine first-stage engines are briefly fired. This allows crews to ensure that all systems are working properly and that the rocket is ready to fly. Shortly after the test, SpaceX tweeted that the static-fire test was a success and that the company planned to launch on Thursday at 6:11 a.m. EDT (1011 GMT).

The flight marks SpaceX's 11th mission of the year and the 2nd long-duration mission to launch from Florida. The rocket's first stage is expected to land on one of SpaceX's drone ships, "Of Course I Still Love You". Following a successful liftoff, the crew capsule will spend just under 24 hours trailing the space station before arriving at the orbital outpost early Friday (April 23).

In a shift from the company's previous two crewed missions, both the Dragon capsule and its launcher have flown before. Following the success of the Demo-2 mission, which launched two NASA astronauts to the space station in May 2020, NASA gave SpaceX permission to reuse both the crew capsule and the rocket on future missions. 

For this mission, the first stage is the same one that delivered the Crew-1 astronauts to space in November, and the Dragon capsule is the same one that Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley flew on last year. Its name is Endeavour.

In photos: SpaceX's Crew-2 mission to the International Space Station

With the Dragon capsule perched atop the rocket, the duo rolled out of the hangar and onto the launch pad at complex 39A on Friday morning (April 16). Standing 256.3 feet (78.1 meters) tall, the pair were lifted upright later that afternoon. 

Secured to the launch pad, teams were up early Saturday morning, loading the rocket with super-chilled propellants — kerosene and liquid oxygen — and then briefly ignited the first stage's nine Merlin 1D engines.

The engines briefly fired at 6:11 a.m. EDT (1011 GMT), generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust while the booster remained firmly on the ground. Engineers reviewed the data before confirming they would proceed with the Falcon 9's planned launch attempt Thursday morning. 

"Static fire test of Falcon 9 complete — targeting Thursday, April 22 at 6:11 a.m. EDT for launch of Dragon’s second operational mission to the @space_station," SpaceX wrote of the test on Twitter

The static fire test comes on the heels of a flight readiness review. On Thursday evening (April 15), NASA gave SpaceX the green light to proceed with launch preparations, with one exception.

During the preflight inspections, engineers noticed that more liquid oxygen was being loaded into the Falcon 9 than expected — a discrepancy that has been occurring without incident throughout the vehicle's flight history. 

"There's one item we still need to do a little more work on," Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's former head of Human Spaceflight, and SpaceX's current vice president of build and flight reliability said Thursday during a media briefing. "In Texas, we discovered there was a potential loading error, where we actually may be adding a little extra oxygen in our tank than normal. We've been doing that throughout our flight history."

With a successful static fire test now under SpaceX's belt, teams have likely cleared the issue and the rocket is ready to fly. A final launch readiness review is planned for Tuesday (April 20) to discuss any remaining unresolved issues before the launch. 

Following a successful liftoff on Thursday morning, SpaceX plans to land its first-stage booster on a floating platform at sea. If successful, it would mark the company's 80th booster recovery. 

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Amy Thompson
Contributing Writer

Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.