NASA moon rocket on track for launch despite lightning hits

NASA moon rocket on track for launch despite lightning hits

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s new moon rocket remained on track to blast off on a crucial test flight Monday, despite a series of lightning strikes at the launch pad.

The 322-foot (98-meter) Space Launch System rocket is the most powerful ever built by NASA. It’s poised to send an empty crew capsule into lunar orbit, a half-century after NASA’s Apollo program, which landed 12 astronauts on the moon.

Astronauts could return to the moon in a few years, if this six-week test flight goes well. NASA officials warn that there are risks and that NASA could cut the flight short.

In lieu of astronauts, three test dummies are strapped into the Orion capsule to measure vibration, acceleration and radiation, one of the biggest hazards to humans in deep space. The capsule alone has more than 1,000 sensors.

Officials said Sunday that neither the rocket nor capsule suffered any damage during Saturday’s thunderstorm; ground equipment also was unaffected. Five lightning strikes were confirmed, hitting the 600-foot towers surrounding the rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. However, the strikes were not strong enough for major testing.

“Clearly, the system worked as designed,” said Jeff Spaulding, NASA’s senior test director.

More severe weather was expected. Although forecasters gave 80 percent odds of acceptable weather Monday morning, conditions were expected to deteriorate during the two-hour launch window.

On the technical side, Spaulding said the team did its best over the past several months to eliminate any lingering fuel leaks. Two countdown tests in the spring prompted the team to repair leaking valves, and other defective equipment. Engineers won’t be able to determine if the repairs are working until several hours before liftoff.

After so many years and delays, the launch crew was delighted to be close to the first flight of Artemis’ moon-exploration program. It is named for Apollo’s twin sister, according to Greek mythology.

“We’re within 24 hours of launch right now, which is pretty amazing for where we’ve been on this journey,” Spaulding told reporters.

The follow-on Artemis flight, as early as 2024, would see four astronauts flying around the moon. A landing could follow in 2025. NASA has set its sights on the unexplored South Pole of the Moon. There, permanently shadowed and possibly ice-rich craters could hold future astronauts.

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